Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, assassinated on July 8, is not the first of his country’s political leaders to fall victim to political murder; the list is long, dating back to the 1920s. But these attacks were generally perpetrated by militants of the extreme Right or extreme Left. This time, there was no message, and the murderer seemingly had no motive—a sign of the times, perhaps, when violent video games have taken the place of ideologies. Yes, Abe had enemies; he held strong opinions with little nuance. In this he was an exception to the general run of Japanese leaders, who have tended to be bland and insignificant, in part because they get chosen at the end of a long process of negotiation within the collection of clans that together make up the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power almost without interruption since Japan became a democracy in 1945 under the American occupation.
The party, almost the country’s only one, synthesizes democracy as imported from the West and the feudal tradition. It is a federation of clans, each with its chieftain and his circle. Voters select freely but are limited to arbitrating between the clans, whose influence is rooted in their generosity and provision of public amenities in even the smallest village—not in programs or ideologies, which do not exist. But Abe was different: authoritarian, decisive, cultivating the aura of a Samurai taken straight from a classical print or a Kurosawa film, including hair dyed jet black, according to the local custom.
If we had to analogize Abe to a Western political leader, the comparison with Margaret Thatcher is unavoidable: authority and convictions, without apology. Both led their countries for about ten years and transformed them profoundly along similar lines: liberal economics and nationalism. But a notable difference exists between the two: Thatcher came from a modest background, while Abe was the heir of a dynasty that goes back to his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a minister during World War II whom the Americans imprisoned for war crimes before promoting him as prime minister in 1957 in order to block the rise of the Japanese Communist Party. Kishi thus became the hero of the Japanese Right. Kishi’s son, Shintaro Abe, father of Shinzo Abe, served as foreign minister from 1982 to 1986.
Let us say, to simplify, that Japan is a feudal democracy. The circumstances surrounding Shinzo Abe’s rise to power also recall those of Thatcher in her day: Japan was demoralized, having just gone through an historic period of stagnation—“the lost decade.” Innovation, which had been the strength of Japanese businesses, declined along with the economy, all to the advantage of the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Population was decreasing as growth slowed, while hostility to immigration made it impossible to compensate for the demographic collapse by importing laborers. On the international scene, Japan, which had maintained discretion since 1945, had become all but inaudible. The Japanese people seemed to adjust to this comfortable decline, a kind of collective golden retirement. The younger generation, in particular, had ceased to be interested either in its studies or in the external world. Even today, the Japanese students who once dominated American campuses have disappeared, replaced by Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese.
It is at this point that Abe intervened to reawaken the economy and to restore Japan’s international position. In economics, he borrowed the agenda of Ronald Reagan (Reaganomics) and Thatcher, under the name of “Abenomics”: more entrepreneurial freedom, deregulation to stimulate competition, fiscal advantages for entrepreneurs, and a monetary recovery to stimulate demand. Japan, Inc. was revived. The economy started growing again at 2 percent per year instead of being stuck at zero, thanks especially to the excellence of mid-sized businesses—which, in Japan as in Germany, are the foundation of the economy. Eventually, Abenomics ran up against the monopoly of the big conglomerates, which were not inclined to make room for new entrepreneurs. To address the labor shortage, Abe loosened immigration restrictions slightly, which was unpopular. He especially encouraged women to join the labor force, for example, by funding daycare.
The recognition of Japan as a great power in the Western fold was an even more spectacular development—especially since Abe, like his grandfather, denied that Japan was an aggressor before and during World War II. According to them, Japan had the right to make an empire for itself, as Western countries had done, and needed to counter the United States, which was cutting it off from raw materials and oil. It followed that Japan had committed no war crimes. Abe’s position on these points provoked Korea and China, but their umbrage mattered little to Abe, for whom Japan was strategically part of the West, a close ally of the United States in the containment of China and North Korea. (Abe told me, in Tokyo, at the outset of his administration, that Asian stability against China’s encroachment would always depend on U.S. leadership—but only if neighboring Asian countries like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam would share the burden. Therefore, he advocated an increase in defense expenditures, which Japan has since implemented, and a free trade agreement between the Asian countries surrounding China in order to reinforce their mutual solidarity.)
Abe wanted to go further and eliminate Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 Constitution (drafted by the Americans), which forbids Japan from creating an offensive army and authorizes only the deployment of defensive forces. But Article 9 has become something closer to theory than fact. Under the pretext of defense, the Japanese army is one of the most technically advanced in the world, and its fleet could transform itself to an offensive one in an instant—for example, to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, or to oppose the reunification of the two Koreas. Abe forced the world to recognize Japan’s rightful stature: that of a power comparable with China. And he proved himself an heir of the strategy defined in 1868 by the Emperor Meiji: to preserve the distinctiveness of Japanese civilization while borrowing Western technology.
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