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The Legacy of Shinzo Abe. It is Complicated.

  Harini Madhusudan

Shinzo Abe's leadership can not be looked through a prism of successes or failures, but as a series that has strengthened the foundations of Japan

Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan, announced an unexpected retirement citing health concerns in August 2020. By September 2021, Shinzo Abe would have completed his term amid the afterglow of the Tokyo Olympics and as the longest-serving Prime Minister of an economy with clear signs of growth. 
What is his legacy? What has been the impact of his policies domestically? How do we measure Abe's foreign policy approach internationally versus the approach to Japan's immediate neighbourhood? 

A liberal in his attitude
Despite representing the most conservative wing of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe was seen encouraging liberal social attitudes in his approach to economic migrants and expansion of the labour pool to include women. Though Japan is largely unwelcome to migrants, driven by its economic needs and the drop in population, the government got more guest workers to participate in the economy. One of the first successes of Shinzo Abe's leadership would be when Abe captured control over the office enough to get the bureaucratic state on-board his radical economic policies. 

Author of the Abenomics
Responding to decades of economic near-stagnation, deflation and rising debt, Abe introduced a series of fiscal policies and measures to improve employment and economic growth. Popularly known as Abenomics, he introduced aggressive monetary policy, fiscal consolidation and growth strategy, as a multi-pronged economic program in 2012. Though it is now difficult to predict its impact, the employment and growth rates of Japan had shown signs of improvement before the pandemic, and despite multiple expert opinions, Japan has not faced a debt crisis. 

The COVID crisis and political scandals
However, Abe's miscalculations added to the impact of COVID, and placed a large value on the public opinion towards him. The political scandals and corruption charges against him and his party members, which were largely overlooked when Abenomics was doing well, have become complaints now.  Though the Abe government is being criticized for its management of the COVID situation, despite low death rates and the economic fallouts, a large part of the criticism could be an outpour of pre-existing rage. The health condition was Abe's reason to leave office in 2007; many are calling it an attempt to escape accountability. 

Mixed success in dealing with the Regional and Global
Internationally, Japan was caught at crossroads between being on the side of the US or retaining the improving ties with China; or be the mediator in their disputes, or get allies and the like, to be the balancer. Adding to this, in the neighbourhood, Japan's relations with North Korea, South Korea and Russia remained uncertain. During the press conference at the announcement of his retirement, Abe mentioned that getting abducted Japanese citizens from North Korea; sorting territorial disputes with Russia; and overhauling the constitution to give more power and autonomy to the military would remain as his shortcomings. 

Shinzo Abe had a strong presence in many of the international gatherings and meetings. In his first term, in 2007, he had managed to convince the leadership in the US and in India to be part of the Quad. Abe is known for his relations with Trump, as golf buddies and also known for regular calls between the two. In a sense, Abe was seen moving from reinforcing the US ties to being more pacifist towards the US.  When Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he ensured that the other signatories would keep the agreement alive and called it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Abe's government has also been a part of and/or been the architect of multiple new trade deals. 

Foundations run deep, but are seldom visible
One of Abe's visions, he said, was to see Japan as a respectable nation among the other countries. And Japan is mostly seen as a respectable and also as a reliable partner. Japan has the closest ties with other democracies like India, Australia, Canada, the US and the like. Japan has made significant investments and political arrangements with various countries on infrastructure, technology and democratic institutions. However, political mistrust and challenges in the region remain unaddressed while Japan shares pleasant relations with the rest of the world. 

Finally, the balance sheet
Shinzo Abe's leadership thus, can not be looked thorugh a prism of successes or failures, but as a series that has strengthened the foundations of Japan. The economic reforms introduced by him would certainly provide long- term benefits to Japan. Though the legacy of Shinzo Abe does not list large-scale structural changes, the foundations seem strengthened under his rule. 

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