Skip to main content
opinion

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks with reporters after a meeting with cabinet ministers in Tokyo on April 12, 2013, a day that saw Japan and the United States strike a deal paving the way for Japan to become the 12th Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiating partner.Reuters

Phillip Lipscy is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

The world is in shock after the assassination of Shinzo Abe on Friday. The former Japanese prime minister was a dominant figure in the country’s politics over the past decade. He left a profound legacy not only for Japan, but also for Canada’s evolving approach for the Indo-Pacific region.

Mr. Abe was deeply invested in elevating Japan to an international leadership role. His eponymous “Abenomics” reforms sought to revive the country’s stagnant economy through bold macroeconomic policies and structural changes across areas such as agriculture, corporate governance, energy, labour markets and women’s employment.

He saw Japan’s economic revival as a critical ingredient for his own political success and for the country’s international leadership. Although progress was oftentimes slower than Mr. Abe himself hoped, Japan’s economic performance unmistakably improved under his watch. The era of “lost decades” came to an end.

Shinzo Abe’s assassination shocks Japan, a nation where gun violence is almost unheard of

Mr. Abe also left important political legacies. Before he most recently assumed power in 2012, Japan had seen a revolving door of six prime ministers who lasted only about one year each. This included Mr. Abe himself, who stepped down from his first stint in the role in 2007 after a humiliating upper-house election defeat.

Five years later, Mr. Abe and his close group of advisers returned to office with a carefully formulated strategy to govern Japan. This “Abe model” of governance emphasized maintaining a high degree of political support by pivoting to popular reformist themes after controversies, timing elections strategically to maintain party discipline and accelerating a long-standing trend toward the centralization of power around the prime minister. The approach appeared to pay dividends, as Mr. Abe maintained high public-approval ratings and became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.

These achievements enabled a pro-active foreign policy that perhaps stands out as his most important legacy. Mr. Abe logged 81 foreign visits during his tenure, far surpassing the previous record of 48. He established close working relationships with leaders across the world and sought to leverage these ties to advance Japan’s national interests.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former PM, is dead after being shot at a campaign speech. Latest updates on the assassination, suspect and more

His courtship and personal chemistry with former U.S. president Donald Trump stood out in particular, and was sometimes described as a “bromance.” It was only after both men stepped down from power that Mr. Abe confided that playing golf with Mr. Trump was primarily a means to strengthen Japan’s deterrence against potential adversaries.

The Trump administration’s criticism of, and withdrawal from, major international institutions created an unprecedented challenge for Japan, which relies heavily on its security alliance with the U.S. But it also created an opportunity for Mr. Abe to fulfill his ambition to elevate Japan’s leadership role as a defender of the liberal international order. For example, when Mr. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Mr. Abe worked with like-minded partners such as Canada to resuscitate it as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

Mr. Abe was also an early advocate of an expansive regional approach centred on the Indo-Pacific, and this terminology has now become widely accepted. Japan’s vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was incorporated into U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration and remains central to the strategy of President Joe Biden’s administration. Canada is also actively developing its own Indo-Pacific strategy, drawing on both Japanese thinking and its own values and interests.

Mr. Abe further played an important and valuable role in strengthening bilateral ties between Canada and Japan. Aside from deepening economic co-operation through the CPTPP, his government signed the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement, enhancing security co-operation between the two countries. People-to-people exchange was expanded, as well as academic funding to foster the study of Japan abroad.

Even after Mr. Abe stepped down as prime minister, he remained active and influential in Japanese politics. He played a pivotal role in the ascendance of current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. His statements still frequently made headlines and generated controversy, whether they were about Japan’s relationship with Taiwan, allowing nuclear weapons on his country’s soil or relaxing COVID-19 border restrictions.

Nonetheless, it is without question that with Mr. Abe’s passing, Japan has lost a historic figure whose legacy will continue to be debated for many years to come.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.