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Shinzo Abe wanted to make Japan a “normal country” — as he saw it

The assassination of Abe, who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, shocks a peaceful country.

Shinzo Abe stands in a dark suit, in profile, against a massive Japanese flag furrowed by wind behind him.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seen here in 2016, was assassinated while campaigning for a candidate in Nara, Japan, on July 8.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday was shocking for many reasons: the rarity of political killings in an advanced democracy these days; the paucity of murders of any kind in Japan, long one of the world’s safest countries; the use of a gun in a nation that reportedly had just one shooting homicide in 2021.

But perhaps the most stunning thing of all was the assassin’s target: Abe, who had seemed to master the art of political resurrection as few leaders had in Japan or any other country.

Abe was shot while campaigning for a candidate in Japan’s upcoming upper house parliamentary elections on Friday morning in the city of Nara. The 67-year-old former prime minister, who had resigned in August 2020 because of ill health but remained a power broker within the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had been speaking to the crowd for less than a minute when a pair of possible gunshots were heard. Abe suffered wounds to his right neck and left chest, and was pronounced dead shortly before 5 pm local time.

People pray at a site near the location where former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot earlier in the day during an election campaign in Nara, Japan, on July 8.
Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Police arrested 41-year-old Nara resident Tetsuya Yamagami on an initial charge of attempted murder before Abe was declared dead. In a press conference, police reported that Yamagami had hand-made his weapon — handguns are illegal in Japan, and even shotguns and air rifles require a rigorous background check and licensing program — and that more homemade firearms were reportedly found in his home. The motive for the killing appears to be unknown as of Friday.

A political scion

Abe was quite literally born to occupy the highest rungs of Japanese political power. His maternal grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, an ardent nationalist who served in Tokyo’s military-run government during World War II, and was imprisoned by US occupation forces for more than three years after Japan’s surrender in 1945. But Kishi was never brought before the Allied War Crimes Tribunal and was released in 1948, along with scores of other wartime politicians, as US interests turned from punishing Japan’s militarists to bolstering the country as an anti-communist ally.

Nobusuke Kishi, then-prime minister of Japan, and his wife Ryoko with their grandsons Shinzo Abe and Hironobu Abe (on the lap of his grandfather) in the 1960s.
AFP via Getty Images

Kishi was instrumental in the creation of the LDP, the conservative party that ruled Japan with little interruption during the past 70 years, and in 1957 the former accused war criminal became prime minister — and a living symbol of Japan’s unfinished postwar political reconstruction.

Shinzo Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, was an influential figure in the LDP himself, rising to become foreign minister during Japan’s 1980s economic boom. But it would be Shinzo Abe who would return the family to the top seat, succeeding the charismatic maverick Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the ruling LDP in September 2006.

Abe was the first Japanese prime minister born after the war, but the conflict’s legacy — especially the pacifist constitution put in place by the American occupiers, which officially renounced war as a sovereign right of the Japanese nation — was never far from his mind. Inheriting his father and grandfather’s nationalist politics, Abe made it a goal to revise the constitution, strengthen the nation’s military — officially known as the Self-Defense Forces — and make Japan what he called a “normal country.”

Shinzo Abe, center, stands as he is elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, on September 20, 2006.
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

He failed. With Japan still mired in its long post-1990s economic doldrums, Abe’s year in office was plagued by scandals within his cabinet and missteps of his own. Both the political establishment in Japan and much of the news media (including me; I was working that year as TIME magazine’s bureau chief in Tokyo) wrote him off as a lightweight who had risen to power chiefly by virtue of his family name. When he suddenly resigned in November 2007 citing ill health, following the LDP’s humiliating defeat in upper house legislative elections over the summer, it seemed likely he would go down in history as yet another forgettable leader in a country that has changed prime ministers more than 30 times since 1948. Even worse, Abe’s resignation marked a decline for the LDP that culminated in the party losing power in 2009 to the opposition Democratic Party, for only the second time during the postwar era.

Resurrection and Abenomics

Yet Abe remained behind the scenes, and when the Japanese public turned against the Democratic Party following the mishandling of the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the LDP returned to power with Abe at the helm.

He returned to the prime ministership as a more seasoned and pragmatic politician. Initially putting aside his desire to remake Japan’s constitution and military, Abe focused on economic policy. After the collapse of Japan’s real-estate bubble in the 1980s, the country had remained trapped in decades of sluggish growth, and in the aftermath of the 2008 global recession, it had fallen into a potentially fatal deflationary spiral.

On the fiscal side, Abe introduced over $100 billion in stimulus spending, and broke with Japanese tradition by adopting aggressive monetary stimulus. By 2016, the Bank of Japan was running negative interest rates in what became a successful effort to break deflation. The most staid, orthodox of countries became a leader in unorthodox, expansionary monetary policy, with both the Federal Reserve in the US and the European Central Bank taking cues from it.

Shinzo Abe, center, raises his fist with Katsunobu Kato, left, LDP general council chair, and Toshihiro Nikai, LDP secretary general, during the party’s annual convention in Tokyo, in 2019.
Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Covid-19 hit in 2020 and threatened a global economic depression, countries around the world followed the Japanese model. By the time Abe resigned the prime ministership for the second time in September 2020 — four days after setting the record for the longest continuous stint in office — “it seemed that at least as far as monetary policy was concerned the whole world had ‘gone Japanese,’ writes the economist Adam Tooze.

But even as he helped steer Japan out of its economic hole, Abe remained focused on his lifelong ambitions to remake the country in his nationalist image. In 2013, Abe ignored angry protests from China and South Korea to become only the second sitting Japanese prime minister to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a nationalist symbol that honors the country’s war dead, including war criminals from WWII. He increased Japan’s military budget, and in 2015 pushed through laws that allowed the country’s Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside allies in combat missions abroad. Abe repeatedly downplayed Japan’s aggression and atrocities during WWII, pushing his country to move beyond the war.

“We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” Abe said at a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. It was a position in contrast to the reflexive, if not always sincere, apologies adopted by most Japanese leaders, and it ensured that he would always be a highly controversial figure to East Asian countries like China and South Korean that suffered under Japan’s militarism during the war.

A realist leader for a realist era

For all his influence and longevity, Abe left office for the final time in 2020 a somewhat tarnished figure dogged by further political scandals and accused of mishandling the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He couldn’t reverse Japan’s demographic decline and never achieved his cherished goal of revising the pacifist constitution. While stronger, Japan’s military is still limited, and has been eclipsed by China — and so has Japan as a whole, in many ways, in East Asia.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen on a large screen during a live press conference in Tokyo, on August 28, 2020, when he announced his resignation over health problems.
Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Japan today is many things, but it is not yet what Abe would have seen as a “normal country,” which in his mind, at least, meant a nation not defined by its recent past, one capable of participating in geopolitics and defense as other countries do.

Yet in many ways Abe’s harder-edged, realist foreign policy has won the day in East Asia, just as his version of more nationalist and populist politics at home presaged the rise of political figures like former President Donald Trump, with whom Abe maintained an unusually close relationship. A longtime hawk on North Korea, Abe warned of the rise of an expansionary China, and growing tensions between Washington and Beijing have led US leaders, including President Joe Biden, to increasingly rely on Japan not just as an economic ally, but as a military one.

If America’s long-awaited “pivot to Asia” does fully take place, Tokyo will be one of the main pivot points — a historic departure from the decades when the biggest worry about militarism in the region was the return of a more armed and aggressive Japan.

Shinzo Abe dies having never fully completed the work of his grandfather and father. But political resurrection was his stock in trade, and he did perhaps more than any other political figure to resurrect a version of Japan that many — including many of his countrymen — thought was gone forever.

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