Shinzo Abe will mark two milestones when he arrives in Hawaii next Monday. On the eve of becoming the first postwar Japanese leader to officially visit Pearl Harbor, Mr. Abe will also be celebrating the fourth anniversary of his swearing in as Japan's Prime Minister.
By Japanese standards, this makes Mr. Abe the rarest of politicians. By next May, when France's François Hollande steps down, Mr. Abe will have become the longest-serving G7 leader after Germany's Angela Merkel. Rare is the Japanese prime minister who is around for more than two G7 group photos. Mr. Abe has already been in five of them. The 62-year-old Mr. Abe has upended Japanese politics, ironically by bringing stable government to a country that changed prime ministers six times in the six years before his 2012 election, including his own unsuccessful 2006-07 stint in office. So stable, in fact, that he has been able to push the boundaries of governance further than any of his recent predecessors without succumbing to revolt from within his own party or the voting public.
That matters not just for Japan, but for the entire world. At a moment when the liberal international order is threatened by rising nationalism and protectionism, Mr. Abe is a strong voice for the rules-based international order and global integration that have sustained the post-1945 peace. Squeezed between an increasingly imperialistic China and an increasingly inward-looking United States, Japan may just now be a stable world order's only true friend.
Not that Mr. Abe hasn't played the nationalist card himself, exploiting anti-Chinese sentiment to push for changes to Japan's pacifist constitution and reforming the education system to promote patriotism. But the defining characteristic of Mr. Abe's second incarnation as Prime Minister has been his pragmatism as he seeks to rescue the world's third-largest economy, saddled with a shrinking work force, from the seemingly permanent funk into which it sank two decades ago. His signature recovery strategy – known as Abenomics – is a promising work in progress. But its success ultimately depends on deeper global economic integration.
Mr. Abe's crusade to save the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw his country, is a testimony to his faith in international trade as the key to global peace and prosperity. He overruled his country's powerful agricultural lobby, on which his own Liberal Democratic Party has long depended for support, to this month make Japan the first country to ratify the TPP.
University of Tokyo political science professor Izuru Makihara attributes the Abe government's popularity in part to its strong crisis-management skills, including following the 2013 terrorist siege of an Algerian gas plant that left 10 Japanese dead and the 2015 beheadings of two Japanese hostages in Iraq for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Its oversight of the rebuilding effort in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that killed more than 15,000 contributed to its reputation for competent management.
Mr. Abe is aided by an opposition Democratic Party that suffers from a serious credibility deficit after its disastrous stint in power between 2009 and 2012. And while rival factions within the LDP have usually worked to undermine the party's leaders, Mr. Abe won his second term as party president by acclamation and the LDP is set to change its by-laws to enable him to remain as leader for an unprecedented third mandate. Such is the current Prime Minister's utter domination of Japanese politics, muses Prof. Makihara, that "the biggest potential crisis facing Japan is the sudden collapse of Mr. Abe."
It's not all roses, however. Mr. Abe emerged somewhat scathed from a meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, coming up empty after promising a breakthrough on a longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries. His government's recent move to ram through legislation to authorize casinos was seen as heavy-handed and socially regressive. And his support for restarting nuclear reactors shut in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster has given opposition parties further ammunition. Still, most observers expect Mr. Abe to coast to victory in the next election, now expected in early 2017. That would ensure the straight-laced Mr. Abe, who surprised and delighted his own citizens by donning a Super Mario costume at this summer's closing ceremonies in Rio, is around to open the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. And make history as Japan's longest-serving postwar leader.