Under his economic program, Abe imposed a form of shock therapy that involved cheap cash, government spending on stimulus projects that expanded the country’s debt and attempts at corporate deregulation. The combination delivered results in the early years of his term, lifting the economy out of an unrelenting malaise and raising Abe’s international profile.
A key factor in Abe’s economic platform was an effort to empower women, as he argued that increasing their participation in the workforce would help counterbalance a declining and ageing population. But some of the early promises of his “Womenomics” agenda — such as drastically raising the proportion of women in management and in government — did not come to fruition.
On the international stage, Abe was one of the few world leaders to maintain a consistently close relationship with President Donald Trump. He hosted two visits by the American leader, including one in which Trump met the newly enthroned emperor, Naruhito.
Abe also hosted President Barack Obama when he became the first American president to visit Hiroshima, the site of one of the two atomic bombings by the US at the end of World War II.
And after years of a chilly relationship with China, Abe tried to usher in a warmer era, making the first visit to Beijing by a Japanese prime minister in seven years when he met with President Xi Jinping in 2018.
After the Trump administration pulled out of a multinational trade agreement among the US and 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim, Abe kept the remaining countries in a coalition that enacted the pact in 2018 without the US.
He met dozens of times with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in the hopes of negotiating a settlement over four contested islands north of Japan that were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war.
Abe’s father had long tried, and failed, to resolve the territorial dispute, and the son was unable to resolve it, too. As a result, the countries have yet to sign a peace treaty to officially end the war between them.
Shinzo Abe was born September 21, 1954, in Tokyo to Shintaro and Yoko Abe. His mother was the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, who had been accused of war crimes by the occupying Americans but who was ultimately released from prison without appearing before the Allied war crimes tribunal. He served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and ardently opposed the constitution that his grandson, a half-century later, would try to revise.
Abe’s father also went into politics, serving as foreign minister and as an influential leader in the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but four years since the end of the war.
There was perhaps little question that Abe would eventually follow his father and grandfather into politics. He studied political science at Seikei University in Tokyo and spent a year at the University of Southern California, also studying political science.
After a brief stint at Kobe Steel, Abe began his political career in 1982, serving as executive assistant to his father, who was then foreign minister.
He married Akie Matsuzaki, a daughter of a former president of Morinaga, one of Japan’s largest confectionary companies, in 1987. The couple never had children.
The Japanese news media — and Akie Abe herself — occasionally described her as her husband’s “at-home opposition party,” because she opposed nuclear power, which he supported, and expressed more progressive views than the prime minister on issues like gay rights.
After his father died in 1991, Abe was elected to his parliamentary seat from Yamaguchi prefecture in southwestern Japan in 1993.
His first big break came in 2000, when he was appointed to serve as deputy chief secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party.
In that role, Abe accompanied Junichiro Koizumi, a popular maverick prime minister, to Pyongyang in 2002 to meet with the North Korean leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, to negotiate the release of Japanese citizens said to have been abducted by North Korean agents. The North released five abductees, and the politicians brought them back to Japan.
Abe’s first rise to Japan’s top job came in 2006, when he was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats and became the first Japanese prime minister born after the end of the war.
From the start, he emphasised his desire to revise the pacifist constitution and nudge Japan toward some level of independence from the US, which provided Japan with security in exchange for renouncing a full-fledged military and allowing US troops to be based around the country.
“By entrusting our national security to another country and putting a priority on economic development, we were indeed able to make great material gains,” Abe wrote of the postwar era in his campaign book Toward a Beautiful Country. “But what we lost spiritually — that was also great.”
In seeking to revise the constitution, Abe angered China and South Korea, two victims of Japan’s 20th-century militarism. He also denied that the Japanese military had forced Asian women, primarily Koreans and Chinese, into sexual slavery during World War II, and he moved to alter school textbooks to present what critics called a whitewashed version of Japan’s wartime history.
But within a year, Abe stumbled, plagued by scandals in his Cabinet, and he was written off by the political establishment and news media. Citing ill health from ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease, he abruptly resigned in September 2007, throwing the party into disarray.
His resignation was the beginning of a steep slide for the Liberal Democrats, culminating in the party’s loss of Parliament in 2009 to the opposition Democratic Party. It was only the second time since the Liberal Democrats were formed in 1955 that they had been out of power.
Yet the opposition’s time in charge was marred by gaffes, and the administration ultimately collapsed as the public grew furious at its response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. By 2012, voters had returned the conservative Liberal Democrats to power, with Abe once more at the helm.
He seemed to have learned some lessons from his first term in office. He focused at first on lifting the moribund economy and reversing years of deflation, pulling Japan out of the so-called lost decades that followed the bursting of a huge property bubble in the 1980s.
In targeting the economy in his second administration, “we saw he became much more pragmatic and flexible,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a political scientist at Keio University in Tokyo and a sometime foreign policy adviser to Abe.
Nevertheless, he held on to his ambition of returning Japan to a stronger military footing. In 2015, Abe pushed through a package of security bills that would allow Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to team up with allied troops to fight combat missions abroad. He also formed a national security council and helped increase Japan’s defence budget.
Abe led his party to two more commanding victories in national elections, but he lost the supermajority in 2019 and was never able to push through a revision of the constitution.
But even after he stepped down as prime minister, Abe continued to wield considerable influence from behind the scenes. His hand-picked successor Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, succeeded him when he resigned.
When Suga was forced from office, Abe supported Sanae Takaichi, 60, a hard-line conservative, to be Japan’s first female prime minister. When she did not gain enough votes in a first round of party voting, Abe supported Kishida in order to prevent one of his chief rivals, Taro Kono, a former foreign and defence minister, from winning.
He could still draw enormous attention by floating controversial ideas, such as a proposal that Japan host US nuclear weapons.
And as the Liberal Democrats campaigned for an upcoming Upper House election, Abe’s long-cherished hope to revise the constitution remained a key plank in their platform.
Abe is survived by his wife, Akie Abe; his mother, Yoko Abe; and his brothers: Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s defense minister, and Hironobu Abe, who retired in March as CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation Packaging.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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