Shinzo Abe was such a towering figure in Japan


Shinzo Abe was a towering figure in Japan who as the country’s longest-serving prime minister sought to reestablish this country’s power on the global economic and foreign policy stage.

Abe, who was assassinated on Friday while speaking at a political campaign event for the Liberal Democratic Party in the city of Nara in western Japan, served as Japan’s prime minister from 2012 to 2020.

Global leaders reacted to his killing in horror, with President Biden saying he was “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened” by the news.

“This is a tragedy for Japan and for all who knew him,” Biden said. “He was a champion of the Alliance between our nations and the friendship between our people.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also said he was horrified by the assassination, describing Abe as “a remarkable global leader and stalwart friend of the United States.”

Police are holding a 41-year-old man in custody in connection with the killing, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK. Police told NHK that the man was dissatisfied with the former prime minister and intended to kill him, though a specific motive for the killing remains unclear.

Abe was a controversial figure in Japan; during his career, he railed against Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which enshrines pacifism into Japanese law and says the country has to forever renounce the use of force as a means to settle international disputes.

Abe “sought to shift the center of gravity in Japanese political culture away from the pacifism that characterized most of the early to mid post-war period to a place that was, in his view, more normal,” Richard Samuels, a political scientist and Japanologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview, speaking from Berlin.

He was also a political blueblood in Japan whose grandfather also held the position of prime minister.

Samuels said shifting Japan away from pacifism was important to both Abe and his grandfather, who he noted was also the subject of an assassination attempt in July 1960.

In practice, Japan does have a strong military enabled by legal workarounds, but Article 9 was a sticking point for Abe, who believed it had been imposed upon Japan by the United States during the occupation of the country after World War II.

“He was very eager, determined to get a change in that, to achieve normalcy, so that Japan would indeed be able to say it has a military. That was important to him,” Samuels said.

Abe’s conservative political stances earned him a reputation as an economic reformer following the decline of the Japanese economy in the 1990s and 2000s and as a champion of Japan seeking to bolster its power on the world stage.

Abe’s namesake economic policy, known as “Abenomics,” also sought to restore Japanese power following two “lost decades” of recession after Japan rose to be an economic powerhouse in the 1980s.

The three-pronged approach involved monetary easing, liberal use of fiscal stimulus to combat deflation in the economy and structural reforms to businesses that opened up the labor market to women and immigrants in order to compensate for a rapidly aging workforce.

Analysts say Abenomics achieved mixed results.

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Abe’s time as prime minister saw the rise of China both as a regional economic power in East Asia and as a global superpower with increased military ambitions.

“Abe understood the limitations of Japanese power and that Japan was not on its own going to be able to balance Chinese power. He understood that, and that’s why the alliance [with the United States] was so important to him,” Samuels said.

“Abe’s last major foray into security policy was a statement he made right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was that Japan should have a conversation about sharing nuclear weapons with the United States like Germany does,” Samuels added.