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Shinzo Abe's complicated political legacy


The assassination of Japan's former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, at a campaign event this week shocked the world. Abe resigned in 2020 and was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan's history. He's credited with reshaping the nation's economy as well as its place on the world stage. In the wake of his death, leaders around the world and across the political spectrum have expressed their grief and praise for the former prime minister. To help us better understand Abe's political legacy, I'm joined by Jeff Kingston. He's a professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University's campus in Tokyo. Professor Kingston, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


PARKS: As I mentioned, Abe really reshaped Japan's economy during his time in office, so much that the term Abenomics is often used to describe the economic changes in Japan under his policies. Can you describe exactly what that means? What were Abenomics, and how were his efforts kind of received by his constituents?

KINGSTON: Well, it's really interesting. I mean, certainly, Abenomics made its way into the global lexicon. But I have to say that the general consensus now is that Abenomics pretty much fizzled out. And the current prime minister, last autumn, when he was running to become the leader of the LDP, he was quite critical of Abenomics. And he was asserting that it actually accentuated disparities in society and didn't provide a solid foundation for sustainable growth. And many people have dismissed it as welfare for the wealthy.

PARKS: Do you have any examples of that, of policies that he implemented that now are kind of considered just things that ended up helping the rich?

KINGSTON: Well, I think there's a perception that Abenomics was geared towards pumping up the stock market. Abe pressured the national pension system to invest more in stocks. The Bank of Japan made massive purchases of ETFs, exchange-traded funds. And so Abenomics was seen to game the system in favor of people who own stocks. So not many Japanese own stocks. And so the people who tended to benefit most from those efforts to boost the stock market would be wealthy investors and hedge fund investors.

PARKS: Fascinating. I'd like to also ask about Abe's role with Japan's military. I know that in 2014, his administration reinterpreted a World War II-era law to expand the country's defense capabilities. Can you talk a little bit about how the former prime minister had an effect on Japan's military?

KINGSTON: Yes. In 2014, he reinterpreted Article 9 of the constitution that had been written by the Americans. And the idea in Article 9 was that Japan was banned from going to war and from maintaining any armed forces whatsoever. Now, the government has sidestepped that ban by arguing that it could maintain defensive forces. And this then paved the way for the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines in 2015, which greatly expanded what Japan is committed to do militarily in support of the United States anywhere in the world.

And then later that same year, he passed legislation, the collective self-defense legislation, that provided a legal basis for Japan to actually live up to those commitments. But that legislation was deeply unpopular, sparked massive protests outside the Diet. And even today, I'd say the Japanese public support for that legislation is lukewarm because the concern here is that somewhere, somehow, at the behest of Washington, Japan's going to be dragged into some conflict that doesn't really have a lot to do with the defense of Japan. And so the pacifist identity that has become embedded in the Japanese psyche is challenged by Abe asserting that Japan can no longer afford this unilateral pacifism. So this is very hotly contested terrain here.

PARKS: Did Abe's push for more kind of military power have an effect on Japan's relationship with other countries in the region?

KINGSTON: Well, it did certainly strengthen the alliance with the United States. And the reason Abe did so is because his view is that the regional security environment has deteriorated considerably with China's rapid military modernization. But in terms of regional perceptions, you know, the legacy of World War II and Japan's rampage through Asia hangs heavily over Asia. And so I think that there's always concern about what Japan's intentions will be. But I think that recent events in the Ukraine - Putin's invasion and the prospects that this might have implications for a Taiwan contingency - I think, in many ways, Abe's views on security have become mainstreamed.

PARKS: Do you think that his death will have any impact on Sunday's parliamentary elections?

KINGSTON: Absolutely. This is going to generate a sympathy vote for the LDP. It was already expected to do quite well in these elections. I think it's going to do better, and that's going to strengthen Prime Minister Kishida's hand in the Diet.

PARKS: Lastly, I'm just curious - as somebody who is living in Tokyo right now, has there been a shift in the feeling of the city over the last day or two?

KINGSTON: Well, when the news broke a little after noon, I was in Shibuya, sort of the Times Square of Tokyo. And suddenly, you just saw everybody's face buried in their phones. And I know everybody tends to do that, but I do think there was suddenly a pall cast over the city, and I think people were in collective shock. Abe was a polarizing figure. Some people were really supportive of him. Others were deeply skeptical. But this barbaric act, I think, has, you know, really shocked the nation. I think there is considerable mourning. The mass media attention has been wall-to-wall. And so I think that, yes, his death has certainly created a dark mood in the city.

PARKS: Jeff Kingston is a professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, Japan. Professor Kingston, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us.

KINGSTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.