Shinzo Abe dies after shooting: The leader who returned stability to Japan

During his eight-year term, Mr Shinzo Abe gave Japan a renewed sense of confidence. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE -  Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who died on Friday (July 8) after being shot during a rally, was a political princeling who further cemented his family’s legacy by becoming the country’s longest-serving leader.

Mr Abe’s grandfather was the late prime minister Nobusuke Kishi; his great-uncle was late premier Eisaku Sato; and his father, late foreign minister Shintaro Abe. 

Groomed from birth for the job by his elite, conservative family, the third-generation politician was often admired for his acuity in consolidating power and ability to weather political storms that would have sunk the careers of lesser leaders. 

Mr Abe is credited for returning Japan to stability after a prolonged period of leadership changes during which the country had six prime ministers in as many years. 

He had two stints in office, the first in 2006, when he became Japan’s youngest post-war premier at the age of 52. 

After he stepped down following a scandal-plagued year in office citing ill health, his departure sparked a revolving-door period of political instability that ended only in 2012, when he was once more elected to power. 

His second stint in office lasted eight years, before he stepped down in 2020, again citing ill health. He had long suffered from ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disease. 

As prime minister, Mr Abe gave Japan a renewed sense of confidence. 

“He brought stability to Japanese politics and increased Japan’s international presence,” Nihon University professor of politics Tomoaki Iwai told the Financial Times in August 2020. 

Good at making friends

Mr Abe was adept at cultivating friendships with other prominent world leaders. 

He shared a deep affinity with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even performing a prayer ritual alongside Mr Modi at the Ganges river in 2015, Indian media reported. 

He also shared a strong bond with former United States president Donald Trump, being the first world leader to visit Mr Trump in New York after he won the US election in 2016. 

At that meeting, Mr Trump called Mr Abe “the greatest prime minister in Japan’s history”.

(From left) Former US President Donald Trump, Japan's Mr Abe and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G-20 summit meeting in Osaka on June 27, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The US leader later returned the honour of the visit by becoming the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito when he took the throne in 2019.

Mr Abe’s siblings are also well connected.

His elder brother Hironobu heads Mitsubishi Shoji Packaging Corporation, and his younger brother Nobuo Kishi is Defence Minister. Mr Kishi uses their maternal grandfather’s surname as he was adopted into Mr Abe’s maternal family when he was born. 

Power couple

Mr Abe is survived by his wife Akie Matsuzaki, 60, who comes from a similarly illustrious family background as the daughter of the former president of chocolate maker Morinaga, one of Japan’s best known confectionery companies.  

The couple, who married in 1987, have no children.

Mrs Abe, a former deejay with a master’s degree in social design studies from Rikkyo University, previously revealed that they had undergone fertility treatments after experiencing difficulty in conceiving, but to no avail. 

A photo from April 26, 2007, shows Mr Abe, accompanied by his wife Akie, before boarding a plane bound for Washington, at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. PHOTO: AFP

Married women in Japan often face strong societal pressure to bear children. 
Mrs Abe said her husband had suggested adoption, but she could not accept the idea. 

“I think it is all fate and I have to accept it... that we were not blessed with children,” she told the BBC in a 2006 interview. 

Mr Abe held a bachelor’s degree in political science from Seikei University, and studied public policy at the University of Southern California. 

He first entered politics as a lawmaker with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993, representing the south-western prefecture of Yamaguchi. 

In 2005, he was appointed chief Cabinet secretary in then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration, and was elected LDP head that same year. 

Political legacy 

Along with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr Abe was conferred The Straits Times Asian of the Year award in 2013. The Japanese leader was honoured for the domestic reforms and regional charm offensive he embarked on upon assuming Japan’s leadership.

He was popularly known for his “Abenomics” brand of policies, through which he revived Japan’s flagging economy via unprecedented monetary easing and regulatory reform. 

He was instrumental in Tokyo securing the bid for the 2020 Olympics, and won international affection when he appeared as Nintendo video game character Mario during the Olympics handover in 2016.

Mr Abe also worked to improve relations with Japan’s biggest trading partner China, which were at their most hostile in decades when he took office.

China's President Xi Jinping (left) is greeted by Mr Abe, then prime minister of Japan, at the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

But some of his policies – and  actions – had  also angered Japan’s neighbours.

In 2013, Mr Abe became the first Japanese prime minister in seven years to visit the controversial war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, igniting a barrage of criticism from China and South Korea, and disapproval from ally the United States. 

In 2014, his administration said Japan would nationalise more than 200 islands within its territorial waters, amid disputes over a cluster of islands with China. 

In 2015, the then-premier offered no apology for Japan’s wartime actions on the 70th anniversary of World War II, saying instead that the country’s future generations should not be made to keep apologising. 

Throughout his political career, Mr Abe strove to revise the country’s war-renouncing Constitution, imposed by the US after Tokyo’s defeat in World War II. 

He made no secret of his dream to see Japan possess a full-fledged military. 

“Japan likes to speak about an ideal world,” Mr Abe told The Economist just last month. “But we must change our attitude of leaving all military matters to America. Japan must take responsibility for peace and stability, and... work together with America to achieve it.” 

In 2014, Mr Abe reinterpreted the Constitution to allow “collective self-defence”, citing a necessity in the face of threats from an increasingly assertive China and an unstable North Korea. 

Legislation passed the following year enabled Japanese troops to fight in the aid of allies under armed attack.  

Surviving scandals

During his first term as prime minister,  Mr Abe’s government was hit by a series of money-related scandals and gaffes that forced four of his ministers to resign. A  fifth minister hanged himself after being caught massively inflating his office expenses.

Throughout his second term, Mr Abe was embroiled in at least five scandals, including one in 2017 over questionable government land allocations for schools provided to associates of Mr Abe and his wife. 

The final scandal he faced in office saw his hand-picked justice minister Katsuyuki Kawai and the latter’s wife Anri arrested in June 2020 on charges of vote-buying in an Upper House election. 

Public support for Mr Abe eroded following the saga, combined with anger over his perceived indifference in imposing Covid-19 measures as Japan battled to get the pandemic under control. 

Ultimately, at the time of Mr Abe’s departure from office in September 2020, he had not succeeded in achieving many of his main goals, including revising the pacifist Constitution and boosting the economy enough to hit a 2 per cent inflation target.

Mr Shinzo Abe (centre) on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, on June 9, 2018. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

“Abenomics” helped Japan escape from a cycle of deflation, but the global fallout from the coronavirus pandemic put the country into recession, wiping out the gains. 

All that unfinished business may be one reason why Mr Abe eschewed a quiet retirement after stepping down from the top job, opting instead to remain prominently embedded in Japanese politics. 

At the time of the shooting on Friday, Mr Abe was speaking at a rally on behalf of his junior, LDP candidate Kei Sato, a member of the Upper House running for re-election in Nara prefecture.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.