Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated by a lone gunman on July 8th causing shockwaves through Japan’s political system. The assassination came just days ahead of parliamentary elections. Abe, who holds the record as Japan’s longest serving prime minister and who leads the largest faction in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was giving a speech in support of a candidate for the country’s upper house of parliament when he was gunned down. Political assassinations in Japan are rare. This is the first assassination of a sitting or former prime minister in Japan since 1936. The assassination has shattered Japan’s sense of internal security, one that has been relatively tranquil since the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system. Japan’s current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, called that attack “dastardly and barbaric.”
Words of grief and condolences quickly spread from around the world. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called the assassination an act of “terrorism.” He also sent a personal letter to Abe’s wife to express his condolences. Narendra Modi said Monday would be a national day of mourning in India “as a mark of our deepest respect.” American president Joe Biden said he was, “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened by the news,” adding, “Even at the moment he was attacked, he was engaged in the work of democracy.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated, a “wonderful person, great democrat and champion of the multilateral world order has passed away.” China also gave a statement. “Former Prime Minister Abe made contributions towards improving China-Japan relations during his term. We express our condolences on his death and send our sympathies to his family,” a statement from the Chinese embassy read.
Abe served as Japan’s Prime Minister twice. The first time he served exactly one year from 2006-2007. He resigned due to unpopularity and health problems. Over the next five years, however, he worked masterfully to regain the premiership and served as prime minister from 2012-2020. Once again, Abe was forced in part to leave office due to health problems.
As prime minister, Abe became a transformative figure pushing Japan to take a more prominent global role while also pushing the country to take a more active role in its own defense after decades of pacifism. His premiership overlapped the rise of Donald Trump to the American presidency. Abe became known as a bit of a Trump tamer and managed to keep Japan away from the unpredictable president’s criticisms. His relationship with Trump allowed him to be an influence on the erratic president’s views of North Korea, China, and the region. Despite his relationship with Trump, Abe was also able to deftly maneuver around him as indicated by Japan joining the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) after Trump abandoned the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Among Abe’s other accomplishments as prime minister were forging the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which had been stuck for many years on the subjects of agriculture and automobiles. It was the largest trade agreement up until that date the EU had signed. Abe’s diplomacy also ushered in more involvement from Europe in enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea with France and Great Britain joining Japan in maritime sanctions surveillance. Abe was instrumental in getting Europe to play a larger role in Asia during his tenure.
Abe had some low points in his tenure as prime minister on the diplomatic front. He was unable to keep Trump from leaving the TPP even though he was able to plow ahead and help formulate the CPTPP as a replacement agreement once America pulled out. Abe worked tirelessly in his first four years as prime minister to negotiate a peace treaty with Russia to no avail. Russia remains the only neighbor of Japan to not sign a peace agreement in the aftermath of World War II. An agreement hinges on the status of the disputed Kuril Islands, also known as the Northern Territories. In the end, Vladimir Putin saw little benefit in a compromise over the islands. War legacy issues also saw during Abe’s tenure a deterioration somewhat of the relationship with South Korea. Japanese businesses became the focus of litigation by South Korean citizens for their involvement in Japan’s war crimes in the second world war. Punitive damages have been awarded against some companies, however, Japan feels that these rulings violate the normalization agreement terms it signed with South Korea in 1965.
One of the Shinzo Abe’s regrets when leaving the premiership was being unable to enact constitutional reform. Japan’s constitution has not been changed since it was enacted under General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. Of particular interest is Article IX of Japan’s Constitution which blocks Japan from using force to resolve international disputes. While many believe it has kept Japan from initiating wars since its defeat in World War II and has been a net positive, rising Chinese militarism is increasing pressure to repeal or amend the article. Many question if even Japan’s well-funded and technologically advanced self-defense forces are constitutional. Abe wanted an amendment that would guarantee the defense forces were constitutional. His proposal was met by mixed reviews, even in his own party, and his efforts failed.
Despite the end of his premiership, Abe returned to parliament where he continued to champion his policy ideas. To the end he entertained policy ideas such as hosting American nuclear weapons and Japan taking an active role in a potential crisis around Taiwan. Even in parliament Abe was a force to be reckoned with. At the time of this writing it remains unclear how his assassination will affect the upper house parliamentary elections schedule for July 10th. There is no evidence as yet that the assassination was part of a wider conspiracy, and on the surface it gives the impression that this is the work of one individual. Undoubtedly, the life of a major figure in Japan’s post-war history has come to an abrupt end. The legacy of Shinzo Abe will certainly live on for a long time to come.