Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s July assassination has caused the nation’s political pundits to reflect on his legacy, with some arguing he jeopardized Japan’s democracy and abused his power for personal gain during his eight years as leader.
Incumbent Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he decided to hold a state funeral for Abe in order to “defend democracy,” but critics point out the former leader, who was not welcoming of views inconsistent with his own, did much to hurt Japan’s democratic policy-making process.
A large screen in Tokyo’s Akihabara area shows news that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot to death. (Kyodo)
While ruling lawmakers close to Abe praise him for delivering the Liberal Democratic Party victory in six national elections over about seven years from 2012, the party’s electoral success can largely be attributed to the opposition bloc’s inability to gain political traction.
As the head of the government, Abe became mired in scandals in which he was alleged to have misused political funds and engaged in cronyism. At the same time, he was able to push through administrative regulation changes and appoint officers at his convenience, which allowed him an authoritarian-like command over politics, the pundits say.
On the diplomatic front, foreign policy direction was largely set by Abe’s office, eventually causing Japan’s relations with its neighbors China, Russia and South Korea to deteriorate significantly, they said.
“Abe’s government was a nightmare for the public,” Japanese freelance journalist Akihiro Otani told Kyodo News, arguing the former leader, who tried to thoroughly eliminate his political enemies, deprived voters, bureaucrats and lawmakers of their rightful freedom to operate in a democracy.
About 30,000 people gather in front of the Diet building in Tokyo on April 14, 2018, to demand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation in the wake of a string of recent scandals. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
“Voters have responsibility” for making him the country’s longest-serving prime minister, but he can be “accused of having eroded democracy” that Japanese people enjoyed until he came to power, said Otani, a former reporter for the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, a strong voice of support for Abe and his government.
Abe resigned after a scandal-plagued year as prime minister between 2006 and 2007 but staged a comeback when, as leader, his LDP overwhelmingly beat the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan in the House of Representatives election in December 2012.
In 2014, the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs was launched to select and appoint senior officials of ministries and agencies, enabling Abe and his right-hand man, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to make all personnel decisions for top bureaucrats.
During his second stint as prime minister, Abe was embroiled in several favoritism scandals, including the government’s heavily discounted sale of state land to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator linked to his wife, Akie. Public documents about the deal were falsified by bureaucrats, with one official linked to the case later killing himself and his widow being given damages from the Japanese government that ensured details would not be revealed.
Bureaucrats were also involved in alleged attempts to conceal other scandals without Abe’s direct order, giving birth to a popular buzzword “sontaku,” meaning preemptively acting on what one believes are a superior’s wishes.
Abe himself is believed to have repeatedly lied about allegations leveled against him during Diet sessions.
In 2013, Abe tapped a former diplomat known to support his hawkish security stance to be chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which examines legislative bills. The bureau is considered the “guardian” of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.
With the bureau on his side, Abe achieved his cherished goal in 2015 of enacting constitutionally controversial security bills to expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces abroad, allowing the alliance with the United States to firm further.
Kaoru Takamura, a Japanese novelist critical of Abe, said the former leader “distinguished between like-minded people and the rest,” and his “undemocratic approach” distorted politics, resulting in a lack of diversity.
A Japanese government source said Abe “took control of all personnel affairs, helping him bend bureaucrats and lawmakers to his will. We were not able to defy him as we wanted to avoid conflict with him.”
Photo taken in April 2019 shows then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressing a cherry blossom viewing party in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. (Kyodo)
“Regarding diplomacy, we were unable to voice objections to proposals by the Prime Minister’s Office, even when they were irrational. As a result, tensions between Japan and our neighbors have escalated,” the source said.
While Abe was in office, Japan’s ties with South Korea deteriorated to their worst level in decades over wartime history issues, with disputes also spreading to economic and security matters. A South Korean court ruling in favor of wartime laborers led the Japanese government under Abe to take economic measures in apparent retaliation.
Abe decided to provide economic assistance to Russia to persuade President Vladimir Putin to return the disputed Northern Territories to Japan. But some analysts say the aid could have been directed in part to fund Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The political value Abe attached to Japan’s relationship with self-ruled Taiwan put Japan at loggerheads with China, with Beijing seeing the island as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.
“We should be held responsible for having given Abe a free hand in policymaking,” the source said.
In September 2020, Abe stepped down as prime minister, saying he needed to be treated for a flare-up of the intestinal disease that had made his first stint to September 2007 a short one.
Abe’s resignation came amid growing controversies about his poor handling of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and his strong ambition to host the eventually postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in spite of it.
He became the head of the biggest faction within the LDP in 2021, allowing him to preserve his influence over the administration of Kishida.
Killed while campaigning in a House of Councillors election, Abe was targeted due to his perceived links to the Unification Church. His assailant, Tetsuya Yamagami, reportedly told police his mother’s substantial donations to the religious group ruined his family’s finances.
In 2021, Abe appeared in a video message aired at an event held by a Unification Church-affiliated group.
After Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet and party executive lineups in August, it was revealed that many of those involved have some relations with the Unification Church, now officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
The revelations add to evidence of what could be a densely intertwined network of contact between ruling lawmakers and the religious group, established in South Korea in 1954 by a staunch anti-communist and often labeled as a cult.
Otani said, “Abe’s death has unveiled that Japanese politics has suffered a tremendously terrible cancer. We should seriously review what Abe and his government did for the Japanese public.”
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