Shinzo Abe on Monday reached another milestone as Japan’s prime minister with the longest continuous tenure in office. When he returned to the government’s helm in December 2012, disparagers of Abe were concerned that he would tilt the country and its people toward his brand of conservative nationalism that they elucidated by observing his speeches, writings and activities.
They raised concerns that Abe would worsen relations with regional neighbors, that he would change the pacifist nature of the Constitution, and that he would propagate historical revisionism and the denial of the plight of the “comfort women.”
In hindsight, Abe’s tenure has been quite different than castigators imagined at the domestic and international level and, as with all political leaders, it has been punctuated by successes, failures and missed opportunities.
Channeling the Meiji Restoration leaders of Japan’s modernization, Abe initiated Abenomics, an economic strategy that includes a mixture of quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus through government spending and structural reforms.
These policies garnered momentum at their outset until two ill-considered consumption tax increases were adopted in 2014 and 2019. The World Bank and other organizations also argue that Abenomics lost momentum because there was not enough commitment to structural reform.
The economic headwinds were further enhanced by U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies and his trade war with China. Both have negatively impacted Japanese businesses. The economic tsunami stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has further damaged the economic progress, leaving the Japanese economy today barely better off than when Abe took power.
Womenomics has also been an area that Abe initiated to make “Japan in which women can shine.”
According to a 2019 Goldman Sachs report, “Japan now enjoys record female labor participation (71 percent) that surpasses the United States and Europe, generous parental leave benefits, improved gender transparency, and labor reforms.” The same report stresses that “a dearth of female leaders, gender pay gaps, inflexible labor contracts, tax disincentives, insufficient care-giving capacity, and unconscious biases” has not been fully addressed by Abe’s policies.
With only a few Cabinet members represented by women and only 10 percent of Lower House seats occupied by female lawmakers, political leaders have not set the tone at the top. As a result womenomics has not garnered the desired momentum to fundamentally address gender inequality in Japan.
Here, there is much to be learned from international firms based in Japan that have been able to successfully install women in leadership and management positions, have been able to offer more flexible labor contracts, and deal with the hurdles the Goldman Sachs report highlights.
Abe’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also been mixed. His handling of the quarantining of the Diamond Princess in early February was heavily criticized even though the U.S., Australia and others handled their own cruise ship quarantines in a similar manner.
His declaration of a state of emergency in April was also deemed a little too late by many despite the declaration resulting in a temporary decline in infections. Japan has so far had more than 65,000 cases and 1,200 deaths, and its daily new infections have dropped from the Aug. 3 peak of 1,998 to 701 on Wednesday (236 in Tokyo). How the pandemic unfolds in the coming year will positively or negatively impact his domestic legacy more than his other signature domestic initiatives.
On the international front, political leaders have more latitude in terms of what they can achieve.
When he took office in late 2012, Abe inherited a severely damaged Sino-Japanese relationship in the wake of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands. Surprisingly, Abe resuscitated the bilateral ties to a functional (yet highly contentious) relationship, culminating in a state visit by President Xi Jinping (planned for this spring but since postponed).
Abe’s diplomatic efforts were set to result in the so-called “fifth political document,” a paper meant to frame the tone and nature of Japan-China relations for the next decade. But the COVID-19 pandemic, deepening skepticism within the Japanese public and among conservative policymakers toward China, and the escalating tensions between the U.S. and China are likely going to make it difficult to pursue such a document and realize Xi’s state visit anytime soon.
Relations with South Korea have been another area where initial promise has given way to a negative spiral in bilateral relations. In December 2015, Abe reached an agreement with the South Korean government over the comfort women issue, potentially laying the foundation for bilateral relations to move in a different trajectory.
That initial progress in bilateral relations halted with the election of President Moon Jae-in in 2017. Following the reneging of the comfort women agreement by the Moon administration, the threat to withdrawal from the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing agreement, and the ruling by South Korea’s supreme court ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation for wartime labor of Korean workers, bilateral relations have plunged to the lowest level since Tokyo and Seoul normalized relations in 1965, with the views of politicians and the public in both countries toward each other also falling to record lows.
Unlike the security problems that exist between China and Japan that will continue to challenge the bilateral relationship far into the future, Japan-South Korean relations are deviled by politics in both countries, despite their numerous shared interests in the region, shared norms and political institutions.
Here, Abe is perhaps one of the few political figures in Japan that could reset bilateral relations with a gesture or initiative that addresses some of the core issues that divide the two neighbors. Promoting large-scale cultural, education and business exchanges might be one such initiative where citizens learn about each other’s cultures and societies to build bridges to the future instead of obstacles based on the past.
Without a doubt, Abe’s biggest challenge during his tenure has been managing Japan-U.S. relations since the election of Donald Trump. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, slapped tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminum, initiated an ill-considered trade war with China and cajoled Japan into signing a mini-trade deal last September. This has all occurred as Trump denigrated the value of alliances and demanded that Japan and other alliance partners dramatically change their burden sharing agreements with the U.S.
Abe has responded to this mercuriality at several levels. First, he has sought to personalize the relationship at a leader level while refraining from critical comments about Trump or his administration.
Second, Abe has increased the quality and quantity of Japanese interlocutors in Washington through regular and more frequent visits of Self-Defense Forces officers, politicians, scholars and think tank research and business leaders. This approach has strengthened institutional relations such that they cannot be easily fractured by an arbitrary tweet or misinformed pronouncement by Trump.
Third, Abe has invested heavily in multilateralism and the promotion of a rules-based order. Using the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision (FOIP), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the economic partnership agreement with the European Union, Japan has brought more stakeholders into the Indo-Pacific, to secure markets for trade and to forge a constellation of states that will be compelled to enforce rules-based behavior.
The Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan and the Australia-Japan-United States Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership exemplify Abe’s approach to work with the U.S. closely but also diversify Japan’s partners reflecting more autonomy in foreign policy.
Abe’s milestone is marked by a mixed and incremental record. At the domestic level, his core initiatives have not lived up to their promise because of a lack of structural reform, leadership embodying aspirations in the case of womenomics and the pressures from exogenous shocks. Notwithstanding, corporate governance reform, a modest liberalization in migration schemes and other incremental changes to the domestic economy are accruing momentum.
At the international level, he has negotiated the increasingly severe geopolitics astutely, receiving high praise from nuanced assessments of power in the region such as the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, which has deemed Japan “the leader of the liberal order in Asia.” The State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute echoes these conclusions, finding Japan to be the most trusted state in the region. These are a direct result of Abe’s leadership during his tenure as prime minister.
Whoever is the next Japanese leader will have much to learn from Abe’s consequential prime ministership.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.