The United States hasn’t had to worry about Japan in nearly a decade. Now it might have to start.
Perhaps the timing was coincidental, but in the very week that Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, he resigned. The cause was the same that prematurely ended his first premiership, in 2007: chronic ulcerative colitis. Despite slumping polls, a stubbornly sluggish economy, and a nagging scandal over the 2016 sale of land for a school in Osaka, Abe nonetheless towered over Japanese politics since returning to the top office in 2012, and from that position he remained a staunch ally of the United States for nearly a decade. Losing that partnership just as the U.S.-Chinese geopolitical competition heats up is a worrisome prospect for Washington. Who will succeed Abe, whether Japan will slip back into political paralysis or instability, and whether the next leader will have as energetic a foreign and defense policy as their predecessor are the key questions facing not only Japan, but also its allies and competitors.
After three consecutive terms as prime minister and nearly eight years atop Japanese politics, it is difficult to remember how moribund Japan seemed when he retook office in 2012. Abe’s first resignation in 2007 had led to five more one-year leaders, including a stint in which Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost power for the first time since 1955 (apart from a very brief period in the early 1990s). From the ashes of his failed first term as prime minister, Abe turned himself into the most consequential Japanese politician since the power brokers Kakuei Tanaka and Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1970s and 1980s.Trending Articles
Abe is the son of a foreign minister and grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who went from being imprisoned as a Class A war criminal by the United States to prime minister from 1957 through 1960 and one of the architects of the LDP’s electoral dominance throughout the decades. Abe cemented his position after 2012 through a coherent policy platform of economic growth and foreign and security policy activism. Countering the image of the typical anodyne Japanese politician, Abe adopted U.S.-style sloganeering for his economic plans; once he returned to office, he introduced “Abenomics” with its famous “three arrows” of monetary expansion, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform.
While falling short of many of the goals of Abenomics, such as a 2 percent inflation target to end deflation, Abe nonetheless broke new ground by joining, and ultimately leading, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, reducing corporate taxes, deregulating key sectors such as electricity, increasing the number of foreign workers in Japan, and promoting greater numbers of women in the workforce (known as “womenomics”).
Tsai called the redesign a “common wish” among Taiwanese.