The Assassination of Shinzo Abe

Former prime minister Shinzo Abe, one of Japan’s most powerful politicians, died today after being shot while campaigning ahead of a parliamentary election. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida mourned Abe’s passing and announced that the election scheduled for July 10 would go forward after the attack he characterized as barbaric and a threat to democracy. President Biden issued a statement praising Abe as a champion of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe was Japan’s longest serving prime minister and a transformational figure, the most important Japanese leader in a generation. He stepped down in 2020 after presiding over a window of political stability in which he introduced strategies to strengthen Japan’s economic competitiveness, defense capabilities, and global leadership role based fundamentally on close ties with the United States.

Q1: What happened?

A1: Abe was delivering a stump speech in the western city of Nara for a fellow member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) when the suspect, apprehended by police at the scene, reportedly approached from behind and shot him with an improvised weapon. Abe was rushed to a hospital around midday, but doctors could not stem the bleeding from gunshot wounds, and he was pronounced dead hours later. Abe’s assassination shocked a nation unaccustomed to gun violence.

Q2: What were Abe’s prerogatives as a political leader?

A2: Abe hailed from a prominent political family (his grandfather was prime minister and his father served as foreign minister) and rose in the LDP ranks as a staunch conservative well known for his interest in national security and desire to strengthen Japan’s leadership role in world affairs. He served briefly as prime minister from 2006­­–2007, a tenure that was marked by ineffectiveness. He learned from this experience, and when he returned to power in 2012—after a period of political instability marked by a string of short-term leaders—he brought with him a clear and ambitious plan for restoring Japan’s leadership credentials. Abe moved quickly to project confidence in Japan’s future, evidenced by a speech he delivered at CSIS in February 2013 titled “Japan is Back.” He introduced an economic strategy dubbed “Abenomics” centered on fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and economic reform (including trade liberalization) as a foundation for sustainable growth, which produced mixed results but nonetheless served to increase Japan’s visibility as the world’s third-largest economy. He brought Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2013, despite opposition within his party to doing so. Abe also boosted defense spending in the face of a belligerent China and North Korea and instituted defense policy reforms in 2015 that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to operate more closely with U.S. forces and thereby strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe worked tirelessly to advance Japan’s relationship with the United States, while seeking to move beyond Japan’s World War II legacy. This effort to close the door on the past, and to build an alliance focused on the future, was exemplified by his address to a joint session of Congress in 2015, and visits to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor with President Obama in 2016. He elevated Japan’s diplomatic profile by enhancing ties with other countries in the region, including India. Abe also wanted to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to explicitly recognize its contributions to international security but was not able to realize that vision, though the issue is expected to feature prominently in the policy debate going forward. Abe resigned in 2020 after nearly eight consecutive years in office, and remained influential as the leader of the largest political faction in the LDP. His contributions were numerous, but he will likely be most remembered for shaping Japan’s strategic trajectory centered mainly on ensuring stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.

Q3: How did Abe shape Japan’s strategic trajectory?

A3: Abe was ahead of the curve in recognizing the challenge China posed to the international order and devised a comprehensive strategy to shape regional dynamics under what he called a vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). FOIP was not designed to contain China—Japan, like many other countries in the region, maintains a strong degree of economic interdependence with Beijing—but Abe understood that networking with other countries in the region was critical to maintaining a rules-based order and developed the FOIP framework accordingly. His approach centered on strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, long the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy, as well as building partnerships with other maritime democracies such as Australia and India, along with diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asia as China sought to enhance its political and economic influence across the region. Abe was an early proponent of the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India coordination mechanism known as the “Quad,” although the initiative did not gain traction during his time in office, and prioritized networking across the region to align perspectives on political and economic challenges. Abe also deserves credit for advancing regional trade liberalization and preserving TPP under the re-branded Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), after the U.S. withdrew from that agreement in 2017; he championed other initiatives to shape rules and norms for regional economic integration. Abe’s FOIP vision remains a centerpiece of Japanese strategy and was largely adopted by the United States and several other countries. Abe’s blind spots were relations with South Korea and Russia. Ties with Seoul deteriorated in Abe’s final years in office, as a result of historical sensitivities that returned to the fore under South Korean president Moon Jae-in. And throughout his tenure Abe pursued a closer relationship with Putin’s Russia, in an effort to secure the return of the Northern Territories—islands occupied by Russia in the waning days of World War II. This effort was unsuccessful, and at times placed him at odds with the United States and the West; it has collapsed entirely in the wake of Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But there is no question that Abe’s agenda to strengthen Japan’s leadership role in economic, security, and diplomatic affairs, and his effort to network with other countries under FOIP, has enhanced Japan’s profile geopolitically and shaped way the United States and other countries think about the Indo-Pacific and the importance of partnering with Japan in that context. 

Q4: How will Abe be remembered?

A4: Shinzo Abe will be forever remembered as a dynamic and transformational leader who worked tirelessly to restore Japan’s confidence as a world leader, strengthen Japan’s ties with the United States, and partner closely with other countries in Asia and around the world to support a rules-based international order. He left a strategic blueprint for Japanese leadership that will be embraced by political leaders for years to come.   

Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow with the CSIS Japan Chair and deputy director for Asia at CSIS. Yuko Nakano is a fellow with the CSIS Japan Chair and associate director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Yuko Nakano
Fellow, Japan Chair, and Associate Director, U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program