The assassin’s bullets that ripped through former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s heart last week also opened a hole in the heart of Japanese democracy. The assassination, while not immediately destabilizing to Japan’s sociopolitical order, is a herald for greater change. Fact is, whether Abe had been murdered or not, Japan’s role in the Indo-Pacific is changing in fundamental ways. That change is not occurring because of internal factors. Instead, the changes being foisted upon Japan are coming from outside their island nation.
China’s rise and North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons threat are but two of the outside factors compelling radical change in Japan’s regional stance. Another factor has been the role of the United States. Shinzo Abe appeared as the only leader in Japan who had a handle on these matters. His sudden death leaves Japan without a wise, grandfatherly figure to help the country navigate these tough times and complicates the Abe vision of restoring Japan as a primary political, economic, and military power in Asia.
Shinzo Abe had left office in 2020 with one year remaining in his term as prime minister of Japan. Afflicted with a debilitating case of ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager, Abe had struggled to balance his health with his demanding job. In 2020, he claimed the disease had gotten the better of him and he needed to step aside.
Abe was the son of the Japanese political leader who had served in the militarist government that had taken Japan to war against the United States in World War II. In fact, Abe’s father was briefly imprisoned by the United States when it occupied Japan. As reconstruction began and the pall of Soviet communism hung over postwar Japan, the Americans sought Japanese allies who could prevent it from falling into Soviet hands. They turned to many Japanese leaders who had previously been involved in the war against the United States. Abe’s father was one of those Japanese leaders.
Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was the coalition that has consistently led Japan since the earliest days of the Cold War. Abe was political royalty, given his father’s role in the leadership of the LDP since its founding. Shinzo Abe had charisma and a brash leadership style that few other politicians in Japan could match. Abe’s confidence was likely born out of his familiarity with power in Japan, because of his family’s lineage. For Abe, the LDP was the legacy of his father and he sought to preserve that legacy at all costs—and to expand the promise of the LDP for Japanese voters.
What was that promise? National greatness.
Shinzo Abe’s big dream was to see Japan become a “normal country.” Since the end of World War II, Japan was made to follow what was known as the “Peace Constitution” imposed upon them by the Americans. The Americans and the rest of Asia feared what might occur if Japan remilitarized. And given how badly Japan was battered by the war, the survivors of that conflict were more than happy to oblige their conquerors.
What followed was a remarkable tale of economic growth and the creation of a truly peaceful Japanese political order. Whereas before World War II, political assassinations were routine and political gamesmanship was violent and unpredictable, the postwar Japanese established one of the most stable democracies in history (with the help of the Americans and their allies).
Yet, the “Peace Constitution” was unique in the world in that it forbade Japan from developing the military capabilities that all nations are allowed to build for themselves. Three generations have passed since World War II. Abe was tired of Japan being made to “apologize” for a war with which most living Japanese had no involvement. He believed it was unhealthy for his nation to be punished indefinitely. Abe recognized that China’s rise and North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons threat made sustaining the Peace Constitution impractical—especially as Japan’s longtime American allies were increasingly distracted by other events globally.
As prime minister, Abe made himself a controversial figure by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which honors Japan’s war dead—including war criminals from World War II. Regardless of whether you agreed with Abe’s decision, he did this to signal to his people that they needed to move on from the war guilt.
Of course, Abe was not saying that Japan was right for attacking the United States on December 7, 1941. What’s more, throughout his long political career, Abe had proven himself to be the staunchest ally of and advocate for Japan’s unique alliance with the United States.
Building from his belief that Japan must become a normal country again, Abe strove to create a coalition of Asian democracies firmly aligned with the North American democracies, to curb China’s rise. According to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abe was the key architect for the Quadrilateral Alliance (or, the “Quad”) consisting of Japan, the United States, Australia, and India.
While it is true that Abe’s successor, Fumio Kishida, had spent years as Abe’s protégé, his disposition is far different from that of Abe. And Kishida’s political vision is far more restrained than that of his freewheeling, almost American predecessor. It remains to be seen if and how Abe’s successors can maintain their firm grip on Japanese politics. What’s more, the question of whether Japan will be as reliable as an ally for the United States in the Pacific is now up in the air.
The question of “who benefits?” from Abe’s assassination can easily be answered in one word: China. It is irrelevant whether China actually pulled the trigger. Much evidence points to the fact that the assassin was acting on his own and was deranged. But Abe’s death leaves a gaping hole in Japan’s politics. Those most likely to fill that void are those who do not share Abe’s comprehensive vision for a Japan that has re-militarized and is prepared to fight either China or North Korea on behalf of the Americans.
Abe’s successor, Kishida, will likely remain in power until 2025. After that, who knows? In the meantime, analysts should anticipate a spate of changes over the next few years that will likely see Japanese politics shifting fundamentally. These changes will have occurred only because Abe was removed from Japan’s political scene. They will negatively impact the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, too.