By: Bonnie Vanguardia
Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was killed in Nara City on July 8, marking one of the most high-profile assassinations in recent times. It was a tragedy that nobody could have anticipated—especially in a country where gun violence is nearly negligible—and has deeply shaken Japanese society.
As leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe was the nation’s longest-serving Prime Minister and one of its strongest since World War Two, initiating policies which led to the overhaul of its defence system. His time in office saw an increase in military spending, the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with India, Australia and the United States, and an impressive revision to Japan’s pacifist constitution that now enables its military to fight alongside foreign allies.
His death leaves behind many questions regarding Japanese security, but for foreign policy analysts one question remains unanswered: What is Abe’s legacy in global politics?
As world leaders moved quickly to pay their respects to the ex-Prime Minister, it was his fostering of stronger East-West ties that stood out to them the most. “He was a champion of the Alliance between our nations and the friendship between our people,” U.S. President Joe Biden wrote in a statement released by the White House, “his vision of a free and open Indo Pacific will endure”.
Indeed, Abe has always been a staunch defender of U.S.-Japanese relations during and after his Prime Ministership. He continually reaffirmed their joint commitment to Taiwanese security during periodical Chinese aggression and, more boldly, authorised the construction of an American military base in Okinawa against local protests. His tenure also saw the signing of the US-Japan Trade Agreement, lifting tariffs on certain products from 2019 and strengthening economic ties.
Such actions leave little doubt as to why he is being remembered as a friend of the West. In fact, others have gone further than simply recognising Abe as an American or Western ally, with political commentator David Frum claiming that the former leader of Japan was “one of the great internationalists of his era’”.
But Abe’s reputation in the Asia-Pacific region tells a different story.
Despite being hailed as a defender of democracy, Abe held a controversial stance on Japan’s war crimes during World War Two. Critics maintain that he downplayed the brutalities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army, a topic that remains taboo in Japan. After all, the ex-Prime Minister never shied away from his alternative views.
During his first term in office, he claimed that there was insufficient evidence of comfort women being forced into sexual submission, suggesting that they were prostitutes as opposed to sex slaves. He would also make several visits to the Yasukuni Shrine during his lifetime, a place where 14 convicted Japanese war criminals are buried, drawing much controversy in countries like South Korea.
His interpretation of history would later dominate the Japanese school system. In 2013 educational reforms began altering depictions of the imperial army in classes, with Abe
instituting textbook screenings to prevent overly negative portrayals of his country. One of the topics revised included accounts of sexual slavery, requiring a disclaimer that they were ‘disputed’—much to the frustration of historians and victims alike.
However, Abe did not only seek to alter the national memory. His attempts to impose a different account of events reached various states in Asia, namely the countries which had suffered under Japanese oppression.
In 2017 Tokyo recalled two of its diplomats to South Korea, citing its erection of a statue dedicated to Korean rape victims in Japanese brothels. Yoshihide Suga, then Cabinet Secretary and later Abe’s successor, stated that South Korea had failed to “deal with the resolution of this issue appropriately”. The incident only enflamed existing hostilities between the two states, forcing historical grievances to resurface. Ever since, relations between Japan and South Korea have remained in a political backwater.
Then, in 2019 the Japanese Government pressured Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte into taking down a statue commemorating their nation’s comfort women. The President could not deny the request, given Japan was the Philippines’ largest contributor of overseas development assistance at the time. Women’s rights activists protested the statue’s removal, with Philippine academic Teresita Ang See claiming that “good relations with Japan should not come at the expense of forgetting history”. The statue was only on display for five months.
Strained relations between these states and Japan did not rest solely on Abe’s revisionism. But with anti-Japan protests continuing in South Korea today and the Philippines’ new government shifting towards China, Abe’s war on words must be recognised as worsening ties with other Indo-Pacific countries. He may have brought Japan closer to the West, but Japan seems more alienated now than ever to several of its democratic neighbours.
Shinzo Abe will certainly go down in history for his ambitious foreign policy goals. But like the hugely varied views of Japanese history books, he will be portrayed positively in some and negatively in others.