Shinzo Abe was a political force of nature; his vision of a stronger Asia deserves to be highlighted more than his untimely end.
Shinzo Abe: Asia's visionary
It is an unfortunate pattern that great leaders and visionaries often meet a violent end. On Friday, July 8, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated less than a few minutes after he took to the podium during a campaign speech in the city of Nara in western Japan. In a country where gun violence is almost unheard of, the most influential and longest-serving prime minister of the country met his end at the age of 67 through two shots inflicted by a crude, homemade gun cobbled together in a one-room apartment by an unemployed 41-year old man. Perhaps the most stunning thing of all was the assassin’s target: Abe, a political force who had mastered the art of political tenacity and resurrection as few leaders in Japan or any other country.
The shooting sent shockwaves through Japan, considered one of the world's safest nations with some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere (in 2021, only one person was killed and four injured in the 10 shootings across the country). Current prime minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that he was “not aware of the motives and background behind this attack, but this is an act of brutality that happened during the elections—the very foundation of our democracy—and is absolutely unforgivable.”
Shinzo Abe was Japan’s longest-serving leader. He served as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, and again from 2012 to 2020. He came from a prominent political family. As a child, he grew up on stories of how sitting Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi– his maternal grandfather– was stabbed and left bleeding profusely after an attack by a right-wing activist outside the Prime Minister’s Office. Shinzo Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, was an influential figure in the LDP himself, rising to become foreign minister during Japan’s economic-boom years. But it would be Shinzo Abe who would return the family to top-tier political influence when he succeeded the charismatic maverick Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the ruling LDP in September 2006.
In a sense, Shinzo Abe was born to occupy the highest rungs of Japanese political power, and did so with aplomb through the course of his political career. The way he shaped his legacy is testament to his idea that strong leaders should not shy away from strong decisions. Even his harshest critics would not deny that throughout his career Abe successfully conveyed his vision that he was willing to act in ways that he thought would strengthen the Japanese state and protect the Japanese people in an increasingly hostile world order.
When Abe announced his resignation as premier of the world’s third-largest economy in 2020 citing health issues, power corridors across the globe were abuzz with speculation about the direction of leadership in Japan and the how the contours of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s legacy would shape up. In his inimitable style, he stepped down but never really stepped away. In fact, the months that followed showed that he remained a force to reckon with in Japan and overseas, as he continued to exercise influence within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Japan's political landscape.
When Abe first became prime minister in 2006, Japan did not have a Defence Ministry. Under his leadership in 2007 the Defence Agency (Boei-cho) was upgraded to a Defence Ministry (Boei-sho). Upon his return to the prime ministership in 2012, he undertook efforts that resulted in what many consider the most significant institutional reform in decades- the creation of the tripod of a National Security Council, a National Security Strategy, and the National Defense Program Guidelines that defined the architecture of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). These sweeping national security reforms were supplemented by important diplomatic initiatives. As Abe widened his initiatives he also gained respect and built ties the world over.
As premier, Abe was determined that future generations should not have their worldview shaped solely by the nation’s past. “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” Abe said at a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. It was a position in contrast to the reflexive apologies adopted by most Japanese leaders, and it ensured that he would always be a controversial figure to East Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea. A longtime hawk on North Korea, Abe warned of the rise of an expansionary China. Earlier this year, he called on the United States to drop its long-standing practice of "strategic ambiguity" and give Taiwan assurances that it could count on American help in the event of an attack by China.
Abe’s unrelenting efforts to resurrect a version of his nation that many in Japan thought was gone forever made him a controversial figure even in some sections of Japanese society. His vision of a stronger Japanese state was not universally popular, and his zeal for changes to strengthen the state, particularly its national security establishment, often attracted sizable protests.
In his autobiography "Utsukushii Kuni-e" ("Towards a Beautiful Country"), Abe recounted his childhood memory of June 18, 1960, a transformative moment in Japanese history when Japan passed a new security pact under the leadership of his grandfather, former PM Nobosuke Kishi. Protesters surrounded the parliament building, and Kishi was trapped inside the prime minister's official residence. According to Abe's recollection, Kishi was drinking wine with Eisaku Sato, Kishi's younger brother who later became a prime minister himself, when he said, "I know I am not wrong. If I am going to be killed over this, so be it."
Given this it is all the more mystifying that a world leader who grew up on such stories and who was more than willing to address difficult issues while in power was ultimately assassinated not for his political views while in office, but what appears to be a bizarre grudge the suspect held towards a specific religious sect (Gendai Business has reported the suspect's mother spent ruinous amounts on donations to the Unification Church), which he believed was encouraged by the erstwhile Prime Minister. Prime Minister Abe's killing would have been appalling at any time. The timing adds to the sense of an unstable world in crisis where democracies, in particular, appear to be under siege.
For India, Shinzo Abe was special in ways that are yet to be fully realized. Abe moved Japan-India ties away from a narrow financial assistance paradigm to developing a vision for shared leadership in the Indo-Pacific region. This was kicked off with Abe’s 2007 address to the Indian parliament, where he opened with saying that “in history, Japan and India have attracted one another,” and ended with a call for partnership to form “a region to promote fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests.” It is a legacy that the Indian political class will not forget for a long time.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Abe as "a towering global statesman, an outstanding leader, and a remarkable administrator." He said on Twitter that July 9 would be a day of national mourning in India.
Nara, the city where Prime Minister Abe met his untimely and unfortunate end, is the ancient capital of Japan and an important seat of Buddhism. As Buddhism found a home in the island nation, in 741 Emperor Shomu ordered the creation of a giant statue (daibutsu) of the Buddha at the Todaiji temple in Nara. The “eye-opening ceremony” for this Daibutsu (akin to “pran pratishtha” ceremonies at Hindu temples) was held in 752. Chosen to officiate at the ceremony and to paint in the pupils of the Daibutsu’s eyes was the Indian monk Bodhisena, the first Indian to reach Japanese shores. To this day the brush Bodhisena wielded, as well as some of the Tempyo-era costumes, masks, and other utensils used during the ceremony are preserved in the Shosoin treasure house near Todaiji.
A part of India thus lives on the city where a true statesman and friend to India has met an unfortunate end. A leader of Abe’s stature deserved a better ending. He lived his life as Prime Minister doing his best to reconfigure Japan’s place in East Asia, with an emphasis and respect for its relations with India. He deserves to be remembered for that more than anything else.