Abe in a new avatar

Seldom does anyone get a second shot at becoming prime minister, especially after failing miserably the first time.

Though written off by many, Mr Shinzo Abe scored an upset win in party elections in September 2012, allowing him to land the premiership again three months later when his Liberal Democratic Party snatched back the reins of power from the Democrats.

His pedigree is impeccable. His late grandfather was a former prime minister, his late father a former foreign minister who narrowly missed becoming premier.

Mr Abe was determined not to repeat past mistakes.

Though an unabashed nationalist, he succeeded in pushing that fact into the background and focused on pulling the recession-wracked Japanese economy up by its bootstraps during the first six months of his tenure.

His choice of Asian Development Bank president Haruhiko Kuroda for central bank governor was an inspired one.

Mr Kuroda adopted an ultra-loose monetary policy to whittle down the deflation that has stagnated Japan for two decades. The yen weakened by 20 per cent, spurring Japanese exports and sending Tokyo stocks soaring.

The prime minister even lent his name to his recipe. Packaged and stamped “Abenomics”, it generated domestic and overseas headlines like no Japanese economic policy had ever done before.

The Abenomics quiver holds three arrows: the first is a hyper-easy monetary policy and the second, government spending on public works projects. A third arrow promises ambitious growth strategies ranging from lofty investment targets to the slashing of red tape to attract more foreign investments. As prices rose, he even managed, with moderate success, to persuade industrial captains to pay their workers more.

In July, Mr Abe led his party to a landslide victory in Upper House elections, in sharp contrast to the ignominious defeat in similar polls six years earlier that led to his subsequent resignation as prime minister. 

Emboldened by his triumph, Mr Abe went to New York in September to tout Abenomics.

Brimming with new confidence, he was unafraid to flaunt his nationalistic colours, vowing to pursue “pro-active pacifism”.

In Abespeak, that meant giving a resurgent Japan a bigger regional security role and overhauling what to him was the humiliating legacy of Japan’s post-war Allied occupation, including the Peace Constitution that bans Japan from going to war. He calls this task his “historic mission”.

The Prime Minister has also dazzled critics with his nifty diplomatic footwork, logging at least one major overseas trip every month since coming to office.

He completed visits to all 10 Asean states in less than a year, a feat unmatched by his predecessors. He even travelled to Turkey twice, the second time to witness the opening of an undersea rail link built with Japanese technology and to tie up loose ends in a nuclear reactor deal with Istanbul, despite his own nuclear troubles at home.

Mr Abe’s popularity hovers at around 60 per cent – laudatory, especially considering his public approval slipped to 20 per cent in the last weeks of his first stint as premier.

One major task continues to elude Mr Abe – establishing rapprochement with his country’s two closest neighbours, China and South Korea.

Given the dire circumstances that prevail, achieving this in future will no doubt give his stature a further and significant boost.