Sheila A. Smith on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Resignation and Legacy

Sheila A. Smith is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). An expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, she is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (released in Japanese as 日中 親愛なる宿敵: 変容する日本政治と対中政策), and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance. She is also the author of the CFR interactive guide Constitutional Change in Japan. Smith is a regular contributor to the CFR blog Asia Unbound and a frequent contributor to major media outlets in the United States and Asia.

Tallan Donine CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Sheila A. Smith on September 9, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Sheila A. Smith

Retiring with the record of longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, how did Shinzo Abe effectively navigate Japan’s evolving political landscape to outlast his predecessors? 

Several factors contributed to Abe’s long tenure in office. One is Abe himself. As this was his second time serving as prime minister, he returned with a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) consensus around his leadership once he had control of his health issues. He is a blue blood in the conservative party, as his grandfather was Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, his father was Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, and he is from the Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is a very important hub of conservative politics in Japan. All these things lined up for him. The second factor is party unity. People often forget that the LDP was out of power for three years before Abe returned in 2012. The party was chastened by the fact it had been drummed out of office by Japanese voters. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was the first opposition party to be able to take power from the conservatives who had governed Japan for much of the postwar period. The LDP was very uncomfortable out of power. There was a strong sense within the party that if they won the 2012 election, then they would come back unified around Abe and with a program for Japanese governance that would restore Japan’s economy and position on the global stage. The last factor is that Abe and his party managed to establish and then maintain a two-thirds majority in the lower house of the Diet in the 2012, 2014, and 2017 elections in coalition with the smaller Komeito party. This supermajority provided the Abe Cabinet with extensive legislative power to govern.

In your book, Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, you discuss Abe’s attempts to revise Article 9 of the Constitution to expand the use of Japan’s military. Why was Abe unable to make more progress on this issue? Do you think military reform, and constitutional reform more broadly, will remain a priority for the next prime minister and the LDP?

One of Abe’s biggest legacies is in the security policy realm. He instituted a whole host of reforms in part due to his party’s two-thirds majority in the lower house. He passed a secrecy law, he reinterpreted Article 9 to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to fight alongside the United States and other national militaries, he drafted a national security strategy, and he passed a defense plan that secured an increase in defense spending, among other reforms. He built consensus around these reforms and was able to shepherd them through the Diet. Abe’s advocacy for constitutional revision was less about policy change and more about Japan’s identity. Japan has developed one of the strongest militaries in Asia today without ever touching Article 9. For Abe and some others within the LDP, however, the language still conjures up the U.S. occupation and a long postwar contest between right and left over its meaning. Abe put forward a small revision of Article 9 that would state clearly that the SDF was constitutional in order to put to rest the claim by the left that the postwar armed forces violated the constitution. Within his party, there are some people who still want a full-scale revision of Article 9, while others do not want to touch it. Thus views within the LDP remain divided. My book shows that Japan has a significant military, it has consistently invested in military power over the years, and that the normative piece of restraining the military to the purpose of defense has had some elasticity. I detail several ways in which these basic assumptions of the use of the military by the state have changed. Right now, the Japanese government is reviewing the national security strategy and a new version will be released by the end of the year despite Abe’s resignation. The defense budget piece will be more difficult because of COVID-19. It may account for a larger share of the government budget as Abe tried to do, but we should not expect massive or sudden increases in Japan’s military spending.

Regarding the second part of your question, it is important to remember that constitutional revision has been a part of the LDP platform since 1955. Abe made the most overt case for doing it now. None of the three people running for the LDP presidency have made constitutional revision part of their bid. I doubt it will be central in the general election either. The public is not overwhelmingly in support of the idea, especially relating to Article 9 as they tend to view the constitution as being good for Japan. The case Abe always made for revision was that the constitution was written by foreigners under occupation, which has long been cause for conservative discomfort with the document itself. They may end up amending Article 9, but I am not sure Article 9 will be the first part to be amended.

What role has “Abenomics” played in the country's growth trajectory since the Prime Minister assumed his position in 2012? Was his economic approach a significant departure from previous administrations?

Economists will differ in their answers. Abe defined three arrows in his economic strategy. One is monetary policy, which was really an embrace by the Bank of Japan of quantitative easing. This will continue to be the approach; it is consistent with other central banks around the world. The government wanted to go from a deflationary economy to a 2 percent level of inflation, but that has not happened yet. The second arrow is the use of fiscal stimulus. The growth rate going into 2020 was pretty sluggish. Japan is confronting two problems. First, it has a large ratio of government debt to GDP, which is currently significantly over 200 percent. The second issue is revenue generation. The Japanese have tried to be more fiscally responsible by raising taxes on consumption, but that has impinged on their goal of economic growth. There is a mixed message with the fiscal piece of the second arrow; there is not a lot more pie to give out and that pie needs to be spent to draw down some of the government debt. The third arrow is largely structural: long term change in the structure of the Japanese economy. This includes agricultural reform, labor market reform, and administrative reform. Agricultural reforms were largely implemented under Abe, allowing Japan a freer hand in forging trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Abe also called for more participation in the economy by women and a modest relaxation of immigration to Japan. These bigger structural changes in the Japanese economy are ultimately going to be what makes it successful in the decades to come. Demographics suggest that Japan is going to have to raise its productivity in very different ways than it has to date. Abe laid the groundwork but it will be a heavy and necessary part of future prime ministers’ agendas.

In comparison to previous administrations, Abe’s approach made more sense because he pulled the various pieces together. Monetary policy shift was a major departure; the Bank of Japan had been very conservative in its monetary management. Japan had used the fiscal stimulus frequently in the past, thus the government debt. Abe managed to harness some political support for his structural changes, but his reforms had mixed success. Perhaps most important was Abe’s ability to instill more optimism in how the Japanese people thought about their future.

How might Abe’s resignation impact the country’s management of the economy?

Economic growth is going to be hard for Japan and most of the gains of “Abenomics” have been wiped out by COVID-19. The question facing Japan now is whether and how quickly the government can mitigate that damage. His resignation is not going to mean the end of “Abenomics.” An article in The Nikkei called the next prospective program “Suganomics,” after Abe’s presumed successor, implying the policy will still stay the same even under a different leader. The structural changes called for in “Abenomics” are really important for Japan’s long-term economic productivity and so some aspects might be accelerated while others slowed. The priorities could get refined somewhat but I doubt they will change overall.  

The LDP is expected to pick Abe’s replacement later this month, but public opinion is not aligned with the party’s top choice, Yoshihide Suga. Could this create space for a viable opposition party to challenge the LDP’s majority?

Public opinion on the preferred choice to lead the LDP favored Shigeru Ishiba with Suga far behind him. The LDP has presented this leadership election as the onset of a caretaker government, meaning the country needs stability because of COVID-19 and the state of the economy. Despite the polling on particular personalities, it is likely this conception will go over reasonably well with the Japanese public as they are actually quite risk-averse when it comes to governance. The bigger question will be the next general election for the lower house. Normally the election is called by the ruling party dissolving the Diet, which means the LDP will want to do it when they feel the LDP's support is as high as it can be and when the opposition looks like it is in disarray. Japan’s opposition parties are also in the midst of consolidating in order to more effectively challenge the LDP in the next election. I do not know whether the Japanese voter is ready to risk voting for a non-LDP option. A stronger opposition party will still be smaller than the LDP, but it may be the first step towards a more effective opposition voice on policy reform.

The danger for the LDP party is that it will return to opaque factional politics that do not satisfy the voters. This is how Suga was selected. (Now that he is Japan’s prime minister, however, his political support is 70 percent.) It is the people who are not running that is more of the story for me -- people like Defense Minister Taro Kono and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in the current cabinet, for example. There are some new faces and voices that are smart, popular, policy-savvy, and articulate. Yet right now it looks like the old ways of the party are still picking leaders, and that may be out of step with Japanese voters. It is also important to note there are no women in the LDP leadership race, signifying a disconnect with Abe’s effort of incorporating more women into the economy and broader social restructuring. This is an Achilles heel over the long term because they have not groomed women to lead and they are not backing the women they do have like Seiko Noda. The LDP has work to do to attract women and younger Japanese. This old-boy style of politics is not viable for the future.

Abe formed a close personal relationship with US President Donald Trump and sought to lessen tensions with China. Is the continuation of Abe’s success in ushering in a period of warming relations dependent upon his leadership? 

Holding power for eight years allowed Abe to build relationships with foreign leaders. This offered consistent representation for Japan abroad. This will be harder for Suga, who has been primarily domestically focused and comes without the diplomatic strengths of his predecessor, but Japan’s foreign policies will not likely change. Suga will have to earn global recognition as Japan’s new leader. The problem with being a caretaker government is that until Suga has the mandate of a general election behind him, he will be viewed as temporary and this will diminish somewhat Japan’s voice on the global stage.

As for relations with China, COVID-19 uprooted Xi Jinping’s long-planned state visit to Japan in April of this year. It was a laborious process of high-level diplomacy to get to this point. Moreover, when China passed the Hong Kong Security Act this summer, the LDP introduced a resolution effectively rescinding the invitation. Xi’s visit was something Abe worked hard to realize but it did not happen due to circumstances beyond his control. On the other hand, the future of Japan’s relations with the United States will depend on our November election results. If Trump is reelected, then I suspect the LDP will use Abe as a backchannel because it is unlikely the new prime minister will be able to replicate his ties with Trump. If it is a new Biden administration in January, the new prime minister will have a chance to start fresh.

In your opinion, as Japan embarks on a new path of leadership, what will be Abe’s most enduring legacy?

Abe will remain as elder statesman even though the response to his resignation has felt like a memorial service. There are actually many ways in which former prime ministers in Japan continue to play important roles at home and specifically abroad. Abe will serve as an important asset for Japan on the global stage. If Suga replaces him as prime minister, this transition will be easy because they know each other well and have worked together for the last eight years. If it is a different prime minister down the road, there might not be the same willingness to use Abe in a foreign policy role.

Abe’s foreign and security policy will likely be among his most enduring legacies. His security policy reforms have been critical for Japan’s SDF but will continue to need updating. He has received a lot of credit for building a strong relationship with President Trump and protecting the US-Japan relationship from some of Trump's more negative ideas about U.S. allies. He was also able to effectively navigate around Trump; one such example was the conclusion of the CPTPP. Many Japanese thought if the Americans were not in it then it could not go forward, but he managed to bring it to fruition with regional partners. He also reached out to Europe and made a trade deal between Japan and the EU which had long been a nonstarter. With trade strategy, he was very ambitious in asserting Japanese interests and a strong advocate for liberalizing regional and global trade.  

Tallan Donine CMC '21Student Journalist

Prime Minister of Japan Official / CC BY (

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