Japan’s former leader, Shinzo Abe, was always a polarizing figure. But the fissures that emerged during his return to power in 2012 were largely brushed aside as the world united in grief over his murder.
At the time, a Japan specialist at the Obama-era state department said that one would need “a microscope to find one iota of an upside” in Abe’s becoming prime minister again after his first term in office six years earlier. John Kerry, then secretary of state, named Japan as the biggest problem in Asia rather than its more aggressive neighbors.
And they were far from outliers. The Economist termed his cabinet “dangerously nationalistic,” while the New York Times fretted that his “nationalist fantasies” would pose challenges for the US. After Abe’s assassination Friday, such arguments were back in fashion: One take deemed him a “divisive arch-conservative;” another called him the “most divisive leader” in recent history, who left a “complicated legacy.”
Such skepticism of Abe should be a relic of a bygone age. He wanted no more than to make Japan a normal country — one not beholden to the legacy of events that took place before more than 90% of the country’s population was born. Abe sought a nation that could stand up for itself in a hostile part of the world, surrounded by three belligerent neighbors, rather than depending entirely for its security on its occasionally flaky ally in Washington.
Fretting about Japanese remilitarization might have made sense in 2006, when Abe first became prime minister in his abortive initial term. In 2022 though, it’s wholly out of place. Abe dreamed of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, but subsequent events show how necessary that is. Since then, we have seen North Korea come into possession of not just regular nuclear weapons but hydrogen bombs; Russia has annexed Crimea and then invaded Ukraine; and the regime in China has let its mask slip with its determination to extinguish basic freedoms in Hong Kong.
To say that Japan, which counts these countries among its closest neighbors, does not need a more aggressive posture is an argument that should carry very little water. It was Abe who pushed for a structure to preserve the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region; Abe who recognized the threat that a growing China posed when most other nations saw only dollar signs before their eyes.
He sought to throw off the shackles of wartime guilt that many of Japan’s neighbors use for politically convenient purposes. Yet he also worked to improve relations with almost all those countries. Abe helped repair relations with China: Even though his meeting with Xi Jinping in 2014 began with a legendarily lackluster handshake, it led to a visit to Beijing in 2018. He was still preparing to host Xi in 2020 until Covid struck.
Japan’s relations with its ostensible ally South Korea have always been sensitive. Abe sought to draw a line under the awful history of “comfort women” — the women and girls who had been forced into sexual slavery during Japan’s occupation of Korea — reaching an agreement with the administration of President Park Geun-hye that was meant to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue.
The late prime minister is often dubbed “revisionist” for his refusal to wallow in Japan’s past. His thoughts are perhaps best summed up by his statement on the 70th anniversary of World War II in 2015, which was one of several contrite statements he offered during his time in office.
As well as expressing “eternal, sincere condolences” and a “deep repentance” for the “immeasurable damage and suffering” Japan caused, Abe said that Japan “must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”
Fundamentally, he wanted Japan to move on, and to have rights that most other countries take for granted — a military with which to defend itself, a country that can be proud of itself despite its brutal and violent past. In any other country, he would likely be an average center-right politician.
In death, it seems the attitude may be starting to shift. It was a surprise to see the largely liberal Washington Post now backing Japan’s quest to revise its constitution and urging the US to endorse the move. Support for Abe was evident across Asia in the days after his death. Taiwan sent its highest-level official in decades for the funeral. India declared a day of mourning.
Beyond his tendency to divide opinion, the mood Tuesday was captured best by the throngs of people who packed Tokyo’s Nagata-cho, looking to bid farewell as his hearse circled Japan’s centers of political power in a final goodbye before he was cremated. One woman was heard repeatedly shouting words of thanks to the former prime minister, while another man angrily berated bemused police for what is seen as their failure to protect him.
The world’s dangers have only increased since Abe first came to power. Right now, it could use an Abe-like figure, wise to its threats and skilled in diplomacy.