Shinzo Abe – ‘prince’ of Japanese politics who rewrote history
The assassination of former prime minister Abe Shinzo on Friday has shaken Japan’s political scene and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with which he made history.
Abe, 67, served two terms as LDP prime minister and became Japan's longest-serving leader, before stepping down in 2020.
During his first term, from September 2006 to September 2007, Abe rewrote the history books by becoming Japan’s youngest prime minister at the age of 52. His rise signified a change of era in Japanese politics as power shifted hands to the new generation.
He made history again in his second term, from December 2012 to September 2020, becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister with almost 8 years in office. Abe eventually stepped down citing ill health from chronic ulcerative colitis.
He was considered one of Japan’s most prominent prime ministers on the international stage, especially for his signature “Abenomics” policy of bold monetary policy, flexible fiscal measures and strong growth strategy.
Abe strengthened Japan’s economy by promoting private investment and also tackled deflation by injecting huge amounts of money directly into the economy by buying back government bonds. This resulted in the government holding 70 per cent of the country’s GDP during his term, compared with around 25 per cent of GDP held by the US and European Union members.
However, Abenomics was not universally popular. Many economists said it was a set of compromises forged among LDP factions, while the government’s holding of bonds only made the Yen weaker, which resulted in imports being more expensive, with knock-on effects on household consumption and small and medium-size businesses.
During Abe’s term Japan was also becoming a hyper-aged society, bringing labour shortages so severe that public investment only saw a minimal increase in production. With wages growing at a much slower rate than inflation, Abenomics was blamed for turning Japan’s economy into something like the US, where employees often need more than one full-time job alone to sustain life.
Another reason why Abe is remembered on the global stage is for introducing Tokyo as host of the 2020 Olympics. The closing ceremony of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, saw Abe make a surprise appearance dressed as beloved videogame character “Mario” from the Super Mario Bros series.
Even after stepping down, Abe remained a dominant presence in the ruling LDP party, controlling one of its major factions. His nickname, “the prince”, derived from the fact he came from a lineage of prominent LDP politicians. Abe was a son of Shintaro Abe, who served as foreign minister from 1982 to 1986, and a maternal grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese PM from 1957 to 1960.
Although his popularity as a prime minister went through ups and downs over the years, his status within the LDP was never challenged or undermined. Even his protege, current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is seen as struggling to emerge from Abe's shadow and define his premiership.
Abe’s assassination on Friday sent shockwaves across the whole world, but in Japan the question being asked now is who in the Liberal Democratic Party can amass enough prestige and influence to replace “the Prince of LDP”.