Shinzo Abe Remade Japan—and the World, BU Expert Says
Pardee’s William Grimes foresees no change in course for the country after former prime minister’s assassination
Japan, with 125 million people, had just one gun death last year, and a total of just 14 since 2017. The nation has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. The virtual absence of lethal shootings made last week’s assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe not just tragic, but aberrational, prompting BU Japan scholar William Grimes to mourn Japan’s “lost innocence.”
Abe was gunned down July 8 as he campaigned for a parliamentary candidate. Japan’s longest-governing prime minister served two stints, the last from 2012 to 2020. Police arrested 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami and said he confessed to the murder; he reportedly believed rumors of Abe’s ties to a group that the police haven’t identified.
Grimes, a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor of international relations and of political science, studies Japanese politics and political economy and has been a visiting researcher at the nation’s Ministry of Finance, the Bank of Japan, and at universities in Japan and Australia. The author of numerous books and articles on Japan and East Asia, Grimes says Abe altered the trajectory of his nation’s politics—and the world’s. He analyzes the late prime minister’s legacy and the implications of his murder for Japan.
With William Grimes
BU Today: Why was Abe so important as prime minister, and how would you rank him among Japan’s leaders?
William Grimes: Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, which was particularly impressive coming after a string of one-year terms, including his own first term in office in 2006-2007. That longevity alone allowed him to have an outsized impact on policy, particularly in structural and microeconomic policies, which tend to change incrementally. Combined with the five years that one of his mentors, Junichiro Koizumi, was prime minister, Japan really is substantially different today than 20 years ago. The Koizumi-Abe approach can be seen as prioritizing markets and efficiency over long-term relationships among companies, workers, banks, and the government. Abe differed from Koizumi in his willingness to use fiscal and monetary policy to spur demand—“Abenomics”—as well as structural reforms to increase the reach of markets.
Abenomics’ biggest direct impact was via monetary policy, which accelerated growth and raised asset prices. He also created a more sustainable fiscal path. And the accumulation of microeconomic policies—support for women’s labor, financial sector reforms, tax reform, agricultural reform, and support for new economic ventures—will have a lasting impact on the structure and productivity of the Japanese economy.
In foreign economic policy, he pushed forward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and then, after President Trump withdrew the United States from TPP, he brought to fruition the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the largest and most ambitious trade agreements in the world. On security matters, he helped to secure a redefinition of what Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are allowed to do to support allies, and was a founding member of the “Quad”—Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—among Japan, the United States, Australia, and India [to balance China’s growing power]. He was transformative in a way that probably no Japanese prime minister has been since the early 1950s.
On the downside, he strengthened the hand of historical revisionists who deny that Japan was an aggressor in World War II or that it forcibly recruited “comfort women” [sexually enslaved women for the Japanese army]. This has damaged relations with South Korea and China, and has also made xenophobia and anti-Korean sentiment more acceptable in Japan. His longtime intransigence on North Korea abduction issues also damaged efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear program in the early 2000s.
BU Today: What made Abe continue to remain consequential after he left office two years ago?
William Grimes: Japan has a parliamentary system, so Abe stayed on as a member of parliament after stepping down as prime minister. He was in a safe district, which he, and before that his father, had represented for more than 60 years. His political lineage was extraordinary—think of the Kennedy family, without the charisma. He was the maternal grandson of one of the most important postwar prime ministers, great-nephew to one of its longest-serving prime ministers, who was the only Japanese person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and son of a former foreign minister. His brother is currently serving as minister of defense. Either his son or his nephew will probably take over his seat. It’s important to note that this is a fraught history though; his grandfather, who was an architect of Japan’s wartime economic mobilization, was arrested but never tried as a war criminal after World War II and remained affiliated with Japan’s right wing throughout his career.
Abe was the one person who could hold together the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for an extended period of time. He did so through a combination of mastery of internal politics and external popularity. He was unique in recent decades in being both the leader of the largest internal faction and the most popular politician among voters. These advantages remained even after he stepped down as prime minister, after which he became a kingmaker and public opinion leader. The LDP can manage without him, as there is a fairly stable organization and there is currently no electoral threat. But it will have less of a clear policy stance, especially in domestic economic policy.
Abe’s post–prime ministerial career was focused on supporting hawkish politicians, advocating for a more proactive security posture, supporting the global liberal economic order, and strengthening the US-Japan relationship.
BU Today: Is the triumph of Abe’s party in parliamentary elections two days after his death a sign of his postmortem popularity and likely to realize his goal of making Japan a military power? Would that be a good thing?
William Grimes: The LDP victory was pretty much in line with what had been expected prior to Abe’s murder. The reasons are the perceived competence of the LDP and Prime Minister [Fumio] Kishida on the one hand and the fragmentation and demonstrated incompetence of the opposition parties on the other.
The evolution of Japan’s approach to security doesn’t hinge on Abe. The fundamental basis of Japanese security policy since the end of the US occupation in 1952 has been reliance on the United States to deter attacks—first from the USSR, later from North Korean missiles, and now China. There has been a long-term shift toward more muscular capabilities and a more proactive approach to the use of force, but the principle of purely “defensive defense” is still strong in Japan. The key point here is that Japan’s entire defense capability and strategy are predicated on integration with US forces.
Whether we will see Japan become a military power—first, Japan already is a military power; it has one of the most capable navies in the world, very capable air forces and missile defenses, and has expanded its international cooperation into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Second, Japan’s forces are not configured for offensive activities—there are no bombers or cruise missiles in its arsenal, it doesn’t have expeditionary forces, and has only a very nascent aircraft carrier capability. Third, Japan only works as a military power in cooperation with the United States.
BU Today: Do you expect this killing to be an aberration, or has the political violence we’ve seen elsewhere, including in the United States on January 6, 2021, infected Japan in ways we can’t anticipate?
William Grimes: It’s being reported that the killer was angry because his mother had been involved in a religious sect, apparently the Unification Church, and had given it much of the family’s money. The LDP has developed deep but somewhat hidden relationships with a number of religions that may be considered cults or just fringe sects, including the Unification Church. The killer identified Abe personally with the Church. Exactly why Abe in particular was the target is a little murky, but there is a video of him giving greetings to a nonprofit arm of the church. Also, his grandfather Kishi was a key figure in bringing the group to Japan in the 1960s, because of its virulent anti-communist stance. There may be other reasons why the killer associated Abe so closely with it that will become known over time. I do feel confident that he wasn’t part of an organized group. For one thing, his homemade weapon suggests that he was working alone.
BU Today: What will be the reaction in Japan to this, both politically and culturally?
William Grimes: People are shocked. The Sankei Shimbun [newspaper] put out a list of every attack on a politician, and there have only been three killed since 1960, only one of whom was killed by a gun. Japanese politicians, even prime ministers, have minimal security, and it is normal to do what Abe was doing: standing out in front of a train station with spectators within 20 feet or so. I don’t think that will change too much, except maybe for cabinet members or where there’s a specific known threat, insofar as the killer in this case appears to be a lone wolf. However, if there are more such incidents, it could raise the distance between politicians and voters, which would be very unfortunate.