After eight years in office – the longest tenure in Japanese history, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has dominated national elections, commanded overwhelming legislative majorities, and overseen a process of administrative centralization which has defined almost a decade in Japanese politics and laid down a marker for his successors. The ripples from his premiership will be felt long before the water smooths and everyone re-adjusts to politics without Abe.
His accomplishments won’t match his ambitions, having set and failed to achieve constitutional revision, the return of Japanese citizens abducted and held in North Korea, and the repatriation of the Northern Territories occupied by Russia since the end of World War II. He is also the victim of bad luck with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ramifications of which have so far undone the economic gains from his Abenomics economic program and caused the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to be postponed indefinitely. Accomplishments like institutionalizing collective self-defense and intelligence sharing, diplomatic outreach, and modest economic growth despite huge downward pressures on the Japanese economy are still significant, but not the epoch-defining changes that Abe had in mind. Allegations of favoritism, pugnacity with South Korea, and the entrenchment of temporary employment also represent some of the significant damage that he leaves behind. The outcomes of Abe’s time in office weren’t due to a lack of effort or ambition since he certainly pushed where he was able – but in so doing it exposed boundaries such as what is politically possible, what is too far, and what he can get away with unchecked.
His tenure has probably given us a look at the high-water mark of the LDP. Rather than reflecting the full-throated endorsement of the Japanese public, Abe’s electoral dominance were to more to circumstance (the public soured on the opposition parties, fairly or not, and wanted to avoid political experiments) and electoral management (ensuring lower election turnout which traditionally favors LDP candidates and its coordination with coalition partner Komeito and its masterful ability to guarantee seats and voters). These conditions produced a paradox where the LDP was electorally dominant but not terribly popular with the Japanese public who are basically pocketbook voters that reward competence and punish mismanagement. Abe and his team were adept tactical managers at exploiting this situation for electoral gains, but translating this into the signature policy achievements that Abe had in mind remained a step too far.
Abe’s repeated electoral successes were due as much to limiting voter turnout to base support as much as possible
This doesn’t mean that on its own Japan’s opposition parties will find it easier to make electoral gains with Abe exiting the stage. In fact, the opposition may even find their work more complicated. He offered an almost perfect foil with a thinly-veiled nationalism, the nodding approval of nationalist organization Nippon Kaigi, constant vigilance against Abe’s imminent attempts to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan to remilitarize, and successive scandals involving benefits to Abe’s friends. Whoever eventually replaces Abe will almost certainly at least lean conservative, but no viable candidate will be as comprehensively threatening to opposition ideals. As Romeo Marcantuoni has noted, Abe’s mere presence in office has given the opposition an opportunity to cooperate and mobilize against him. With Abe no longer providing that cohesive force, the opposition will be left struggling to identify a common platform. Disputes over the future of Japan’s consumption tax already hint at the scale of the task before Japan’s opposition parties to become a unified and coherent force, never mind becoming a viable challenger to the LDP.
With Abe no longer providing that cohesive force, the opposition will be left struggling to identify a common platform
Abe’s departure may also paradoxically make the nationalist voices in the LDP louder and more pronounced. Abe never needed to demonstrate his nationalist bona fides to Japan’s right wing. His credentials were already confirmed and he only needed to occasionally burnish them by making noise about constitutional revision, kicking up the dust with South Korea, or handing a cabinet portfolio to a fellow conservative. Whoever succeeds Abe in the prime minister’s office, whether immediately or in the future, will need to demonstrate similar credentials which means offerings, if not visits to Yasukuni Shrine, speeches before Nippon Kaigi, and making sure not to give away too much in any disputes with China or South Korea. Even then, most of any successor’s nationalist credentials won’t have the benefit of the doubt that Abe enjoyed. Accusations that a future prime minister or cabinet may be “too weak” on issues that nationalists hold dear could create space for provocative moves like Ishihara Shintaro’s 2012 purchase of the disputed Senkaku Islands which helped instigate a crisis with China. Though the conditions that allow this have more to do with the LDP’s internal politics and far less to do with nationalism among the Japanese public, these dynamics can easily disrupt Japan’s diplomacy.
Foreign observers of Japan will find their own period of adjustment as they come to terms with new figures replacing familiar faces in key political positions. Some may be even contemplating a possible return of a one-prime-minister-per-year rule which was almost the norm from the end of Koizumi Junichiro’s premiership in 2006 to the beginning of Abe’s second in 2012.
They may not need to worry. A succession of weak prime ministers isn’t the worst outcome for Japan – “muddling through” is an underrated governance model – and predictions that Japan’s chronic structural problems will finally come to a head without strong leadership go back decades. But whether Japan returns to the revolving-door premiership model or if Abe’s centralization of authority takes hold beyond his administration, everyone will need to adjust to a new normal in Japanese politics.