Bidding Farewell to Japan’s Longest-Serving Leader

Henry David Thoreau once said, ‘It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?’ It is our actions that define our legacy, differentiating the leaders through history. Recently, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, announced his intention to step down in light of worsening health; he has struggled with ulcerative colitis since his teenage years [1]. This decision comes at a time when Japan and the greater world face the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus era. There is no better time to look back on Abe’s impact on his nation and the world, and ponder about what the future holds.

Abe’s first stint as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as well as Japan’s Prime Minister (2006-2007) was also ended by illness, after which the country was led by five Prime Ministers, none of whom were able to hold the office for more than sixteen months [2, 3]. After regaining his health, he returned to lead the LDP in September 2012, and assumed the office of Prime Minister again in 2012, a post he will continue to hold until his successor is chosen [4, 5].  Abe, a conservative politician, is known for a brand of economic policy favoring structural reform, fiscal stimulus and monetary easing, popularly known as Abenomics [6]. His promise in 2012 was to pull Japan out of long-term deflation, for which he pursued an aggressive monetary stimulus program which devalued the yen and pushed up share prices [7]. He has prioritized many policy issues, including but not limited to tackling the challenges of Japan’s rapidly aging and shrinking population as well as female empowerment [8, 9]. At the same time, he passed national security measures such as the 2015 security legislation which enables Japan to aid its allies in collective self-defense [10].

The outgoing Prime Minister’s term is marked by stability – he and the LDP ensured his long tenure through a solid grip on power. However, long-running administrations are often assessed in light of their ‘legacy’ accomplishments, and on some aspects Abe falls short. His stimulus program was not able to achieve the 2% annual inflation target. While he has been credited with improvements in the labor market, these are in jeopardy from the COVID-19 recession and many more job losses are feared in the coming months [11]. But perhaps Abe’s true contribution has been in the field of foreign relations and diplomacy. The length and stability of his tenure has increased Japan’s role on the diplomatic stage (after Angela Merkel, he is now the second-longest-serving G7 leader) [12]. His push to increase national security has improved Japan’s security alliance with the United States, though he was unable to prevent Trump from pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership [13]. And one of Abe’s biggest regrets remains that he was not able to resolve the issues of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s [14]. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which would have been a tribute to his tenure, have been postponed due to COVID-19 [15].

As the search for Abe’s successor continues, it is worth noting that the next Prime Minister faces huge challenges, while not having the benefit of Abe’s stature and reputation. They will still grapple with deflation, an aging and shrinking population, and the looming threat of North Korea. The COVID-19 pandemic remains underway, and its true fallout in terms of human and economic cost remain to be seen. The next Japanese Prime Minister will also have to work with the United States President, whether Trump or his replacement, based on the results of the eagerly awaited 2020 election. However, it may be that this successor will have a relatively short term – the 2021 elections may bring in a fresh crop of Japanese politicians, and what comes next will be something to watch [16].

















Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top