Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resigned. Officially because of reasons related to his health but unofficially and in reality there is probably much more than meets the eye. Abe’s involvement in various scandals and his recently rapidly plummeting public approval rates might indeed have played a role why Abe decided to throw in the towel. Or: the reason why he was urged by his fellow Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) members to call it quits to contain further damage to the party. Who knows.
Abe, until last Friday president of the governing Liberal-Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) first governed the country for 11 months from 2006-2007 and then again from December 2012 until late last week. When he took office for the second time in 2012, Abe was determined to revise Japan’s war-renouncing constitution in order - as he and his nationalist and revisionist followers put it over and over again - to make a more ‘normal country out of Japan’. Abe and and his fellow nationalists and revisionists complained that the U.S.-imposed Japanese constitution in general and Article 9 in particular (the article does strictly speaking not allow Japan to maintain armed forces, the reason why Japan’s armed forces are called ‘Self-Defence Forces’ instead) had ‘emasculated’ Japan. With a U.S.-imposed constitution, the country’s revisionists led by Abe warned, Japan can never become a ‘fully sovereign’ country. A claim that always sounded very awkward to the ears of those outside of Japanese nationalist and revisionist circles led by their poster boy Prime Minister. In fact, the very large majority of the Japanese public never shared Abe’s enthusiasm to change a constitution which had served Japan’s interest very well over the decades. To be sure, constitutional revision did not place on Abe’s watch, not even close. Originally, constitutional revision was supposed to have been completed by 2020, the year Japan was supposed to host the Olympic Games. As we know, neither the former nor the latter took place. Towards the end of his tenure, Abe kept his nationalist and revisionist instincts and rhetoric under control and increasingly to himself. That was after more than once over the years he - supported by Japanese ultra-nationalist/revisionist groups and associations - tried to portray Japan as a victim as opposed to a perpetrator during the Pacific War and doubted that South Korean women were forced to prostitute themselves for soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army occupying the Korean Peninsula during World War II.
As controversial as he was within Japan, Abe deserves some credit for putting Japan back onto the map of Asian politics and security. Reacting to China’s less than peaceful rise in recent years, under Abe Tokyo has expanded its security and military ties with like-minded countries like India, Australia and its traditional ally the United States. In fact, since 2007 the three aforementioned countries have intensified security cooperation and dialogue together with Japan in the framework of the so-called Quadrilateral Security Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal security dialogue forum covering security in what is today referred to as the Indo-Pacific Region. The Quad back in 2007 was Abe’s idea, and so was the idea to re-name the Asia-Pacific Region into Indo-Pacific Region. Security cooperation with Tokyo’s three Quad partner countries and others in and beyond the region (including the European Union) in the framework of Abe’s so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy was and will continue to remain Japan’s flagship foreign and security policy project. All of this, and Abe has never tried very hard to hide that, to deter and indeed contain China. Speaking of China: Japan under Abe has wisely resisted the temptation to get involved in Beijing’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) and has instead proposed a comprehensive counter-initiative, financing or co-financing numerous infrastructure development projects in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and elsewhere. ‘Quality Infrastructure’ development in developing countries. ‘Quality Infrastructure’ development is, Tokyo insisted, to be distinguished from Chinese-style infrastructure development projects. Undoubtedly a foreign economic policy success, which also attracted interest and willingness for the European Union (EU) to contribute to in Asia and beyond.
Recently, however, Mr. Abe’s luck seemed to have been running out. In fact, very quickly as it turned out. Critical observers point out that his abrupt resignation had also something to do with very low public approval rates and pressure to finally respond to his alleged involvement in various scandals over the years. By the time of his resignation his approval rates dropped from its heights of 70% to 30%, due to his poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis and his failure to respond to his involvement in various scandals as Koichi Nakano from Sophia University in Tokyo writes in the New York Times. And indeed scandals there were during Abe’s tenure. The so-called Kake Gakuen scandal e.g., in which it is alleged that Abe granted the school operator Kake Gakuen — run by a close friend of his — permission for a special deregulation project in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. Then there was, well still, as Abe has yet to properly respond to the allegations, the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which also involves Abe’s wife. A dodgy land deal, in the context of which Japan’s Ministry of Finance granted the buyer a 85 percent discount of the asking price for a piece of land to build a school on. The school operator was again a close friend of the Abe family and it was revealed that also Abe’s wife was involved in the deal. This in turn led to government officials destroying documents and evidence. The most recent scandal (dating back to 2019) evolves the annual cherry blossom viewing party - a big and usually expensive event, to which Abe had invited a large number of his constituents and political supporters. That smelled of nepotism and indeed corruption, all financed by the Japanese taxpayer. Worse, when the political opposition this year started asking questions about the party for Abe’s friends and allies, the Cabinet Office allegedly destroyed related documents, including the party’s attendees’ list, as Nakano points out. All said and done, it really was time to go for Abe and the question remains whether in the months and years ahead he will have to answer to some of the above-mentioned scandals.