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When Shinzo Abe took power in Japan in 2012, he warned of a country in crisis. The economy was stuck in a “bog of deflation”. Its security was threatened by a weakening US alliance and Chinese incursions into Japanese waters. After two decades of struggle, the nation’s confidence was in tatters.
Mr Abe vowed to solve those problems. He would build a strong Japan, he declared. But as he steps down after a record seven years and eight months as Japan’s prime minister, and hands over to his close lieutenant Yoshihide Suga, the sense of crisis is strikingly similar.
In 2012 Japan was struggling to recover from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, now it is wrestling with Covid-19. The virus threatens to tip Japan’s economy back into deflation. Chinese vessels are more active than ever around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. And while Mr Abe did restore some national self-belief, it was fragile even before the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
With Mr Abe stepping down due to ill health, Mr Suga, 71, has vowed to pick up where he left off. But the former chief cabinet secretary said on Monday, as he accepted leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, that the continuation of Mr Abe’s policies did not mean he would be beholden to party factions or existing personnel: “I want to form a cabinet of people with appetite for reform who will work to serve the public.”