The Irish Times view on Japanese politics: the end of the Abe era

The shadow of domestic scandals will hang over the legacy of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his office in Tokyo on Monday. Abe announced on Saturday that he will resign, ending his record-breaking tenure in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership race in the world’s third-largest economy. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/ AFP via Getty Images

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his office in Tokyo on Monday. Abe announced on Saturday that he will resign, ending his record-breaking tenure in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership race in the world’s third-largest economy. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/ AFP via Getty Images

 

When Shinzo Abe retook office as prime minister in 2012, Japan’s economy was in the doldrums after decades of stagnation and the twin crises of the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear meltdown. By the time he announced his resignation last week, the economy had seen a substantial resurgence on the back of what became known as “Abenomics”, largely an aggressive monetary policy that kept interest rates low, and huge injections of cash into the economy.

A conservative nationalist, he also failed in his ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution

Last year, however, the world’s third largest economy plunged again, as slowing global demand and trade tensions between the US and China scuppered Japanese exports. And then came the coronavirus pandemic. In the interim Abe had become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. His second term for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been cut short by the return of a chronic bowel condition that had caused him to resign in 2007.

His legacy will be seen as mixed. He failed to carry out the third pillar of his Abenomics, structural reforms to address Japan’s labour market rigidities, ageing population and lack of women in senior positions. A conservative nationalist, he also failed in his ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution although managed to push through a law that allows the armed forces to engage in collective self-defence – the right to come to the aid of an ally even when Japan itself is not attacked.

On the international stage Abe salvaged a reduced form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade accord in history, when Donald Trump pulled out, and established a good personal relationship with the latter, a rarity among democratic leaders. The EU-Japan trade agreement was a notable success, and Japan’s relations with China have significantly warmed, though not with South Korea. But the shadow of domestic scandals will overshadow that legacy. Abe has been accused of political cronyism, has weathered ministerial resignations and has had difficulty distancing himself from allegations that one of his ministers was involved in vote buying.

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