WASHINGTON — During his record run as prime minister, Shinzo Abe never achieved his goal of revising Japan’s Constitution to transform his country into what the Japanese call a “normal nation,” capable of employing its armed to safeguard its national interests like any other.
Nor did it restore Japan’s technological edge and economic prowess to the frightening levels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Japan was seen as China is today – as the second world economy which, with organization, cunning and central planning, could soon be number one.
But his assassination in the city of Nara on Friday served as a reminder that he nevertheless managed to become perhaps the most transformative politician in Japan’s post-World War II history, even though he spoke in maddening terms that Japanese politicians consider a survival skill.
After failing to resolve longstanding differences with Russia and China, he brought the country closer to the United States and most of its Pacific allies (except South Korea, where old animosities).
He established Japan’s first National Security Council and reinterpreted – almost by fiat – the constitutional restrictions he could not rewrite, so that for the first time Japan engaged in the “collective defense” of his allies. He spent more on defense than most Japanese politicians realized.
“We didn’t know what we were going to get when Abe came to power with this harsh reputation as a nationalist,” said Richard Samuels, director of MIT’s Center for International Studies and author of books on the military and intelligence capabilities of the Japan. “What we got was a pragmatic realist who understood the limits of Japan’s power and who knew he wouldn’t be able to balance China’s rise on his own. So he designed a new system.
Mr Abe was no longer in office when Russia invaded Ukraine this year. But its influence was still evident as Japan, after 10 weeks of hesitation, said it would phase out Russian imports of coal and oil. Mr Abe went further, suggesting that it was time for Japan to establish some sort of nuclear sharing agreement with the United States – breaking his country’s long-standing taboo on even discussing the wisdom of owning its own arsenal.
His efforts to loosen the constraints imposed on Japan that date back to its postwar US-drafted Constitution reflected the recognition that Japan needed its allies now more than ever. But alliances meant defense commitments went both ways. China loomed larger, North Korea continued to launch missiles across the Sea of Japan, and Mr Abe believed he had to preserve his country’s relationship with Washington, even if that meant delivering a club of gold-plated golf course to Donald J. Trump in the days of Trump Tower. after being elected president.
Mr. Abe was not killed for his radical views, which have occasionally sparked street protests and peace rallies in Japan, at least according to initial assessments. Nor was his murder a throwback to the era of “government by assassination,” the title Hugh Byas, the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief in the 1930s, gave to his memoir of a era of troubles.
Mr Byas recounted the last murder of a former or current Japanese Prime Minister: Tsuyoshi Inukai was killed in 1932 as part of a plot by Imperial Japanese Navy officers that seemed intended to bring about war with the States States nine years before Pearl Harbor.
In the post-war period, political assassinations have been rare in Japan: a socialist leader was assassinated in 1960 with a sword and the mayor of Nagasaki was shot dead in 2007, although this appears to be due to a personal dispute. And the American ambassador to Japan in the 1960s, Edwin O. Reischauer, was stabbed in the thigh by a 19-year-old Japanese man; Mr. Reischauer survived and returned to his position as a senior scholar of Japanese politics at Harvard.
Mr Abe’s death will now spark a race to become the next leader of one of the most powerful factions in the Liberal Democrat Party. And the shock, President Biden said during a visit to the CIA on Friday, will have “a profound impact on the psyche of the Japanese people.”
But that will hardly create a political earthquake. Mr Abe left office, partly due to ill health, two years ago. And in the pantheon of current world leaders, he could not match the powers of Chinese Presidents Xi Jinping or Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; Japan’s humiliating recession in the 1990s damaged its superpower status.
But its influence, experts say, will be lasting. “What Abe did was transform the national security state in Japan,” said Michael J. Green, a former senior George W. Bush administration official who often dealt with Mr. Abe. . Mr. Green’s book “Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo” argues that it was Mr. Abe who helped push the West to counter China’s increasingly aggressive actions in Asia.
“He was chosen for the premiership because of the feeling in Japan that they were being humiliated by China at every turn,” Green said. It was Mr Abe who pushed for the emergence of the Quad, a strategic security coalition of four nations – Australia, India, Japan and the United States – which Mr Biden has now embraced.
Mr Abe was of course not above crude political tactics to get his way. He believed Japan had apologized sufficiently for its war crimes, and he visited Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial that honors Japan’s war dead – including war criminals – in 2013.
Mr Abe’s grandfather, who was accused of war crimes before becoming prime minister in the late 1950s, is among those commemorated at Yasukuni. Mr Abe’s father was a conservative foreign minister and the minister for international trade and industry, who led Japan’s industrial policy.
In 2012, as Mr Abe returned to the prime minister’s office, aides to President Barack Obama feared he was being too hawkish, but over time they reconciled with him. Mr Obama and Mr Abe traveled to Hiroshima to lay a wreath at the site where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, a politically risky appearance for both men.
When Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Abe pivoted. In addition to showing up at Trump Tower with a gold-plated golf club, he traveled to Mar-a-Lago to celebrate the birthday of Melania Trump, the first lady. He sat back and tolerated it when Mr Trump threatened to withdraw US troops from Japan because the country had a trade surplus with the United States. Mr. Abe smiled benevolently through it all, as if waiting for a storm to pass.
Mr Abe has staked his political future on a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When Mr. Trump rejected it, the prime minister continued to nurture the 2016 deal, almost ignoring the fact that Washington was absent. Japan ratified it in 2017; the United States never did.
The Japanese leader viewed managing a mercurial American president as just one more part of the job of lesser power but high tech, understanding that despite all the billions he had added to Japan’s defense budget, he was still heavily dependent on Washington.
“We have no choice,” Mr. Abe told a reporter as he paused in his office at the Prime Minister’s Residence in 2017, acknowledging that Mr. Trump was forever threatening to withdraw all US troops from Japan, regardless of why they were there to begin with.
Mr. Abe seemed to know, as Mr. Samuels said, that “Japan and the United States are in relative decline” and therefore must combine their talents and resources.
“It’s a relationship that has to work,” Mr Abe concluded.