Shinzō Abe failed to overhaul Japan's pacifist constitution but the country will continue build its military mightby Jeff Kingston / November 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
In August, just four days after setting a record for the longest uninterrupted run as Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe announced that he would be resigning due to ill health. The 65-year-old had first been premier back in 2006, and had cut an instantly recognisable figure on the world stage—not only because of his distinctive quiffed hair, but also because of his approach to Japan’s wartime legacy. (Abe had visited controversial war memorials that honoured war criminals, and quibbled in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, about how much coercion was used to recruit the “comfort women” who were forced into wartime military brothels.) His more recent spell in office had begun in 2012, and he now signalled it was time to step aside, saying he didn’t want his worsening ulcerative colitis to interfere with his decision-making.
As well as giving Japan a level of stability at the top that it had not seen in years, Abe oversaw Japan’s recovery from the devastating earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. His bold, multi-pronged “Abenomics” strategy promised to inject some life into the chronically anaemic Japanese economy; most experts were sceptical about its effectiveness even before Covid-19 struck. For a long time he enjoyed public standing as a man of action. Yet the once-popular leader had more recently dropped in the polls. He exited under a cascade of sordid revelations—cronyism scandals, cover-up allegations and close links with politicians indicted for bribery—which leave a tarnished legacy. For the man himself, however, there is little doubt what his biggest disappointment is: the failure to revise the pacifist Article 9 of his country’s constitution.
Written in 1947, under the supervision of the occupying Americans after the Second World War, Abe and other conservatives argue that Article 9 hampers Tokyo’s capacity to respond to the 21st-century challenges in its region, such as China’s hegemonic ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In practice, Japanese governments—and the Abe government in particular—have circumvented the restrictions, but the deeper issue is more about identity: revising Article 9 was central to Abe’s ambitions to restore Japanese autonomy, pride and power. For those who regret the world’s turn towards nationalism and…