By Michael J. Green & Nicholas Szechenyi
Today (on August 28, 2020) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan announced his intention to resign due to a recurring illness. He recently became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and will step down about a year before his current term was set to expire.
Abe’s successor will be determined in September after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) selects a new party leader and schedules a vote in a special session of the Diet (parliament), which the LDP controls. Today’s announcement expedited the transition to a new era in Japanese politics centered on the prospects for stability and policy continuity that were hallmarks of Abe’s tenure.
Q1: Why did Abe decide to resign?
A1: Abe suffers from a disease known as ulcerative colitis and cut short a previous term as prime minister in 2007 citing health concerns. He was able to manage the symptoms with treatment and has presided over a remarkable period of political stability since returning to power in December 2012, just recently having become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. But Abe announced that after a medical check-up back in June and follow-up tests in the last few weeks revealed a relapse, he concluded that his condition, though likely manageable, should not lead to poor political decisions and decided to step down. Abe said he will remain in office until his successor is determined and will remain a member of the Diet (parliament). His announcement coincides with sagging public approval ratings due to frustration with the government’s response to Covid-19, which has precipitated an economic downturn.
Q2: What happens next?
A2: Abe’s current term as leader of the LDP was set to expire in September 2021, just ahead of parliamentary elections that will test the party’s hold on power. The LDP is expected to select a new party president in September who will likely become prime minister after a vote during a special session of the Diet, which the ruling coalition led by the LDP controls. Potential successors to Abe include former Minister of Defense Shigeru Ishiba, who emerged as the front runner in recent polls but is less popular among his fellow Diet members; former Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida, reportedly a favorite of Abe but not as familiar to the public; Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, both of whom have served in those capacities throughout Abe’s current term; and Minister of Defense Tarō Konō, who represents the more progressive wing of the party. Whoever emerges will be under pressure to establish clear policy priorities that connect with the public as opposition parties, though still fractured, hope to capitalize on Abe’s departure to defeat the LDP in next year’s Lower House elections.
Q3: How significant was Abe’s tenure?
A3: Prime Minister Abe was arguably the most consequential Japanese prime minister since Shigeru Yoshida, the architect of Japan’s postwar revival. Junichiro Koizumi, who also engineered a period of political stability from 2001–2006, will be remembered as a leader who restored Japan’s confidence after the collapse of the asset bubble in the early 1990s precipitated the “lost decades” of economic stagnation. But Abe established a grand strategy for Japan to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific that has been embraced by the United States, India, and Australia and welcomed by much of South and Southeast Asia and Europe. Abe will leave office with Japan-China relations more stabilized at the end of his tenure than they had been in a decade. He did not make progress with North or South Korea or Russia, but leadership in those countries made this more difficult, and it remains a task for his successors. From a U.S. perspective, fixing the relationship with South Korea will be particularly important. Abe will likely be most remembered for his efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance and expand the parameters for Japan’s contributions to international security by passing legislation allowing Japan’s military to exercise collective self-defense. His desire to clarify the role of Japan’s military through constitutional reform was unrealized, but he succeeded in leading a robust defense policy debate that will likely endure as the security environment around Japan continues to intensify.
In terms of diplomacy, Abe’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) supported by close alignment among maritime democracies was also consequential and has helped frame the approaches of the United States, Australia, and India. He will also be noted for his statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August 2015. His statement was the longest and most comprehensive of any post-war prime minister, but he also made it clear it should be the last such comprehensive apology by a Japanese prime minister. In South and Southeast Asia, Japan is now viewed as the most trusted nation in the world today according to multiple public opinion polls. The Chinese and Korean publics were less enthusiastic about the apology but muted criticism at the time.
Abe also pledged to revive the economy, which had rebounded incrementally until Covid-19, and has led the regional policy debate on trade via the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other initiatives to promote economic integration across the Indo-Pacific. His domestic economic reforms brought new energy to the Tokyo Stock Market and some sectors such as tourism and the economic empowerment of women, though many wanted bolder restructuring and will be looking for concrete economic policy prescriptions from his successor.
Abe did not realize all his policy goals but accomplished more than any Japanese leader in many decades. And above all, he demonstrated that Japan can lead. It is now up to others to carry that legacy forward. None of the competitors to replace him is proposing a different course, which may be the most significant testament to his legacy of all.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and senior fellow of the Japan Chair at CSIS.
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