Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (age 67) was murdered on the morning of July 8, 2022, while campaigning for Satō Kei, a colleague in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Although his legacy is not without controversy, especially in Japan, he deserves to be remembered as the most visionary statesman of the early 21st century.
There are solid reasons why the Japanese public trusted him enough to make him the longest-serving prime minister in their country’s history. Known for “Abenomics” and labour reform for women, he restored Japan’s international status after decades of post-war humility.
In 2007, speaking to the Parliament of India, Abe proposed a partnership across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This vision evolved into the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Based on the law of the sea and maritime security, it includes infrastructure construction in developing countries, free trade, and development. Recently, even distant and tiny countries like the Netherlands have drafted their own Indo-Pacific strategies or guidelines. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), initially a joint disaster-relief effort by Japan, Australia, India, and the US, blossomed under Abe’s leadership to protect democracy and the rule of law across the region. Abe pointed out China’s threats toward Taiwan are a serious security threat to Japan. He tried to negotiate with Putin over the occupied Northern Territories but was side-lined by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Always a peace-maker, he improved ties with China.
Abe made Japan into one of the leading proponents of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), keeping it alive after Trump pulled the US out. This multi-lateral Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Japan, and six other Asia-Pacific countries that have ratified it is an ambitious project based on shared values. In addition to regulating trade issues of tariffs and government procurement, it promotes gender equality and Indigenous rights, with high standards for labour rights, environmental protection, and development. Abe supported Taiwan’s bid to join by recognizing his neighbour’s economic weight and progressive social policies.
In addition to FOIP and CPTPP, Abe championed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), embracing five CPTPP members, more ASEAN countries and China. The RCEP is sharply focused on tariffs and has a narrower geographical scope than the CPTPP. Abe’s support for two very different agreements reflected his long-term strategic thinking. He hoped that the ambitious CPTPP would encourage other states to seek to meet its high standards. Simultaneously, it serves as a hedge for economic security and supply chain protection if members are targeted with arbitrary or politically-motivated economic sanctions by non-party states. He also completed the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement. On multiple fronts, Abe enabled Japan to influence its broader economic context in ways favourable to its own needs while contributing to larger goals of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Abe’s Family Legacy
If Abe stands out among world leaders for his ability to invest in long-term goals and balance conflicting agendas, this may be because he comes from a lineage of politicians. His father, Abe Shintarō, was a leading parliamentarian in the LDP and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1982 to 1986. His paternal grandfather Abe Kan served in the House of Representatives from 1937 to 1946. The family of Shinzō Abe’s mother, Kishi Yoko, was even more influential. His maternal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was instrumental in forming the LDP and served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi negotiated the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America, which made the two countries security allies and permitted the presence of US bases in Japan. Kishi’s biological brother Satō Eisaku was prime minister from 1964 to 1972. Abe and his relatives are three of the top ten longest-serving Japanese prime ministers. Without a doubt, he grew up amidst inter-generational discussions about Japan’s place in the world. His brother Kishi Nubuo is currently Japan’s Minister of Defence.
Abe’s family heritage was not always an advantage in Japan and neighbouring countries, especially when his opponents manipulated wartime memories against him. Kishi Nobusake was distrusted because he was the leader of colonial Manchuria, wartime head of the Ministry of Munitions, and a suspected Class-A war criminal (acquitted after three years of detention). Guilt by association has made it controversial for Abe even to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where war victims (including Class-A war criminals as well as pigeons and dogs) are commemorated. Untrue accusations that Abe is a radical right-winger, militaristic, or authoritarian long slowed his lifetime goals of revising Japan’s Constitution to allow it to have a full and autonomous military.
Abe and Canada
As prime minister, Shinzō Abe paid close attention to relations with Canada. In the context of many other VIP visits in both directions, Abe made three visits to Canada. Abe often appeared as a patient mentor to the much younger Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, especially in discussions about constructive but cautious engagement with China. Visibly shocked by the news of Abe’s death, Trudeau referred to his friend by his first name and offered condolences to Abe’s wife, Akie Abe. Trudeau said, “I have known Shinzo for many years,” he went on to praise Abe’s thoughtful and compassionate leadership as a “great friend and a partner to Canada.” In addition to his official statement, he called Abe “visionary” and recommitted Canada to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Election results gave 179 seats in the Upper Chamber, well beyond the 166 seats the LDP coalition needed. The LDP needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers for Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to carry out Abe’s goal of holding a national referendum on constitutional revisions. Abe has convinced the world that Japan has emerged from the shadows of World War II and is ready to assume more defence and security responsibilities. A normalization of Japan will strengthen the Free and Open Indo-Pacific as Abe’s most significant contribution to peace and prosperity in the maritime realm that links our two countries.