The nation’s premier appears uniquely poised to take on the host of challenges facing 21st-century Japan.
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An old Japanese proverb states, “Drops of water will drill through a stone.” In other words, persistent, continuous effort leads to momentous achievements. It is exactly this type of tenacity that has placed Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into the world spotlight. His story is one of political riches to rags, and then back again.
Until 2006, everything seemed to be going well for Mr. Abe. He was born in 1954 to a celebrated political family. His grandfather and great-uncle both served as prime ministers, and his father was foreign minister.
In 1977, Mr. Abe graduated from Seikei University in Tokyo and continued his education at the University of Southern California, where he studied political science. He then returned to Japan in 1979 to work for the Kobe Steel Corporation. Three years later, he began working in politics as an executive assistant to his father.
Over the next decade, Mr. Abe continued his march up the echelons of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In 1987, he married Akie Matsuzaki. The couple have no children.
As a member of the LDP, in 1993, the aspiring politician was elected to the lower house of the National Diet (Japan’s parliament) where he gained popularity for his rigid stance toward North Korea. In subsequent years, he held a number of governmental posts, with the most notable being his election to the office of prime minister in 2006. His victory made him the youngest premier in over 60 years as well as the first to be born after WWII.
A staunch nationalist and conservative, he appealed to voters by building a sense of national dignity: “Under his administration, a bill passed setting out steps for holding a referendum on revising the country’s pacifist constitution. He also called for a greater sense of national pride and backed a law requiring the teaching of patriotism in schools” (BBC).
But his success was short-lived. Almost immediately after he was elected, a number of scandals rocked his governing party. In 2007, The Telegraph described this time as “several torrid months that saw the suicide of a minister, a raft of resignations and corruption allegations, an election drubbing for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the upper parliament and a bungled cabinet reshuffle…”
Mr. Abe soon resigned, citing ill health as the reason for his departure. The Washington Post wrote: “At his lowest point, Shinzo Abe lost his health and his reputation. He’d gotten his chance to lead Japan and lasted just 366 days. His aides scattered. He was jeered in public. When he boarded a plane one day, a passenger in the same row asked to move…”
Yet Mr. Abe remained resolute and refused to give up his political career. Within seven years, he was again elected prime minister—and by a landslide. He was listed in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014, and was even pictured on the cover of The Economist as a political Superman.
The Washington Post article continued: “Just seven years later, not only is Abe back as prime minister but he’s also more powerful than any of his recent predecessors, with an approval rating near 60 percent. His resurgence is every bit as improbable as his country’s.”
Political resurrections of this proportion are extremely rare, especially in Japan, where public disgrace rarely breeds anything but obscurity. In an interview with Foreign Affairs, Mr. Abe explained what he learned from this difficult time: “When I served as prime minister last time, I failed to prioritize my agenda. I was eager to complete everything at once, and ended my administration in failure.
“After resigning, for six years I traveled across the nation simply to listen. Everywhere, I heard people suffering from having lost jobs due to lingering deflation and currency appreciation. Some had no hope for the future. So it followed naturally that my second administration should prioritize getting rid of deflation and turning around the Japanese economy.
“Let’s say that I have set the priorities right this time to reflect the concerns of the people, and the results are increasingly noticeable, which may explain the high approval ratings.”
A 2013 Wall Street Journal article documented the distinctiveness of Mr. Abe’s resurgence: “His return to leadership…five years after his unsuccessful and short first term as prime minister, is one of the great comeback stories in modern Japanese political history…Mr. Abe has won largely by successfully melding the idea of his own comeback with that of Japan, a nation increasingly written off as an also-ran—a once-world-beating economy slipping behind China and others.
“With bold stimulus policies, the economy appears to be emerging from its long slump, with growth forecast to outpace that of the U.S. and other advanced economies…Mr. Abe says that in time, his new growth strategies should help restore the country’s former glory.”
Mr. Abe’s renewed vigor and empathetic approach to the citizens of his nation seem to be paying off in his second stint as prime minister.
Japan’s economy has been limping along for over a decade and there has been pressure on the government to stem the ongoing deflationary trend. Upon returning to office, Mr. Abe immediately began to make good on campaign promises, implementing what has now been dubbed “Abenomics.” The plan has three main points (called “arrows”) that emphasize monetary policy reform, federal stimulus, and structural reform.
His policy of aggressive government spending coupled with monetary easing has drawn mixed reviews thus far: “At a  Japan Society forum in New York, a deputy to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that the third ‘arrow’ of his economic rejuvenation policies, the reform element or ‘growth strategy,’ be given an A- grade to date. Yasutoshi Nishimura, senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office in Tokyo, boasted of stock-price, employment and price-level gains from the first two arrows (monetary and fiscal stimuli) and laid out specifics of what the long-awaited third push is likely to entail in coming months…although skepticism about the overall Japanese recovery is growing as the latest GDP numbers showed a tailing off” (Forbes Magazine).
Included in Mr. Abe’s government reform is a plan for rebuilding infrastructure as well as revitalizing Japan’s lackluster military. The nation has been under a constitutional ban on forming a traditional military force since 1947 and currently only maintains a self-defense force. This renewed five-year defense strategy comes in the wake of ongoing tensions with China over islands in the East China Sea.
The New York Times explained the motivations for his military focus: “While Mr. Abe described the spending plan as ‘proactive pacifism,’ it continues a trend started earlier this year  when Mr. Abe began to reverse a decade of military cuts to help offset China’s rapid military buildup and the relative decline of American influence in the region.”
The article revealed that this type of thinking is unprecedented for the nation: “Under the new strategy, Japan will continue to build closer ties with the United States, whose 50,000 military personnel stationed here still form the basis of Japan’s national security. But it will also acquire weapons meant to increase its own capabilities—acquisitions that would have once been unthinkable for a nation that viewed its military with suspicion after its disastrous defeat in World War II.”
While Mr. Abe has gained popularity among many Japanese citizens for his unwavering stance toward neighboring countries such as North Korea and China, there has been some criticism of his foreign policy outside of the country.
Widely known for his nationalist stance, Mr. Abe made a controversial visit to a Japanese war shrine in December 2013 that angered both China and South Korea. The Guardian reported, “Many Chinese and South Koreans regard Yasukuni, in central Tokyo, as a potent symbol of Japanese militarism; among the 2.5 million Japanese war dead honored, there are several former leaders convicted of class-A war crimes by the Allies after the end of [WWII].”
The article continued: “Abe insisted he had ‘no intention’ of hurting the feelings of the Chinese or South Korean people.
“‘There is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals, but I visited Yasukuni shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,’ he told reporters.”
Despite backlash from the visit, Mr. Abe made a personal offering at the shrine in April 2014, again prompting anger from neighboring nations: “China’s official Xinhua news agency condemned Abe’s offering as a provocative move that threatened regional stability and was a ‘slap in the face’ of the leader of Japan’s closest ally.
“South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also responded angrily.
“‘We deplore the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has romanticized Japanese colonialism and its war of aggression by paying tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine,’ [the agency] said in a statement, noting it had happened despite expressions of concern from the international community” (Reuters).
Japan is certainly no stranger to war, with a history that includes involvement in at least seven major wars since the turn of the 20th century. Any signs that point to an armed rebirth certainly are ominous for its neighbors.
Mr. Abe, however, sees Japan’s military resurgence as a necessity, and has even announced plans to lift the country’s ban on fighting in overseas conflicts.
According to the Guardian, “Abe believes that the constitution, compiled by US occupation officials after the war, unfairly restricts Japan’s ability to exercise its right to collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack.”
Japan’s newfound desire to defend itself stems from its volatile relationship with China, coupled with Russia’s increasing militarism and fanatical rhetoric from North Korea’s leader. Quoting a defense ministry report from Japan, Chicago Tribune related: “‘There are various issues and destabilizing factors in the security environment surrounding Japan, some of which are becoming increasingly tangible, acute and serious,’ the annual defense white paper said.”
At one point, Japan was envisioned as a future “Switzerland of the Far East” due to its post-World War II focus on economics instead of military forces. But the realities of regional conflicts and aggression have made this transition difficult.
Despite roiling tensions between China and Japan, the two nations are still attempting to focus on where they can agree: economic ties. A Reuters article titled “Japan’s Abe Dubs China Vital Partner Amid Territorial Disputes” made this clear. It quoted Mr. Abe: “‘China’s [economic] growth is a chance for Japan, and for the world as well. China is Japan’s largest trading partner and we are in inseparable relations economically,’ Abe said at a symposium.
“‘On the other hand, it is true that China is challenging the status quo with force in the East China Sea and South China Sea,’ Abe said, referring to Beijing’s territorial rows with several Southeast Asian countries as well.”
The quote from Mr. Abe continued: “It is necessary for not only Japan but many other countries to prompt China to grow peacefully as a responsible country.”
While the territorial disputes cloud even encouraging economic ties, there have been signs of progress. On May 17, 2014, Mr. Abe’s trade minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, went to China for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
After meeting with the Chinese commerce minister, Mr. Motegi told reporters: “While there are difficult issues facing the Japan-China relationship, we agreed on the need to cooperate in the economic sphere…It was an extremely good atmosphere.”
Much like Japan, Mr. Abe has faced his share of difficulties over the years. With the nation’s 127 million looking to him for leadership and courage, his persistence and endurance will likely be tested. His 60 percent approval rating indicates that most feel they are in good hands as the nation begins to re-emerge on the world stage as a military and economic power.