Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister of Japan, was slain Friday by an assassin at a campaign event.
Abe, who was 67, served two stints as the Asian island nation’s leader, leaving office in 2020, and his legacy loomed large over Japan. The longest-serving Japanese leader’s killing sent shock waves throughout the country and across the world.
With Abe’s death, questions arise about Japan’s direction.
Bruce Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow specializing in Japanese affairs, joins this bonus episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the implications for Japan and to explore the legacy that Abe leaves behind.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Doug Blair: My guest today is Bruce Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow specializing in Korean and Japanese affairs. Bruce, welcome to the show.
Bruce Klingner: Well, thanks for having me.
Blair: Major world news today as former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was just assassinated. First off, what are the immediate implications of this murder for Japan?
Klingner: It’s just a shocking development, because having such a senior leader assassinated of course would be stunning to a nation. Particularly given that gun violence is virtually unheard of in Japan. They have very strict gun laws, have a culture against gun ownership. And last year they had one gun-related death [in a] population of 125 million.
So, the nation will be stunned, not only because it was Abe being killed, but just any one [killed] related to gun violence. And Abe cast a very long shadow on the Japanese political landscape. He served two different tenures as prime minister, including as both the youngest postwar prime minister and the longest-serving prime minister.
And he still was a very, very influential legislative member and head of a major political faction in the Japanese political system.
Blair: It sounds like there are pretty large implications in the country itself, but are there implications now for the rest of the world and for the globe at large?
Klingner: Japan’s policies will not change. So, it’s a devastating loss for Japan for its political landscape, but it will not change or alter Japan’s policies. Since [Abe] resigned for the second time for health reasons two years ago, his two successors have maintained Abe’s policies. And they are very welcome policies in the United States.
Abe was really visionary in creating a larger role for Japan in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as strengthening Japan’s security status, its military status. And his successors have maintained that. So, Japan has shown itself to be a very stalwart and earnest ally of the United States. And Prime Minister [Fumio] Kishida, the current leader, has affirmed in recent meetings with President [Joe] Biden Japan’s willingness to confront the Chinese and North Korean threats in Asia.
Blair: Do we know anything about the possible motives of this assassin?
Klingner: It seems to be a troubled individual. The initial reports [were] that he used a shotgun, but [in] the photos of the assassination, it seemed like a handmade weapon. Given Japan’s very strict gun laws there, citizens are only allowed to own shotguns or air rifles, not handguns or rifles. And there’s a very stringent process even for getting the shotgun.
He seemed to be troubled, there was a statement by the police that he was upset with Abe, but not because of Abe’s political beliefs. [There are] other reports, a bit cryptic, that he wanted to assassinate the leader of a religious movement that Abe is affiliated with. And that leader wasn’t going to be in the Japanese city that Abe was, and so he decided to kill Abe instead. So I think it’s a troubled individual.
Blair: You mentioned at the very top that this is unprecedented, that this type of crime just does not happen in Japan. Are there implications now that this has happened? One of the things that was striking about this was Abe … literally [was making] a stump speech. He was out in public and people were shaking hands with him and very close. Do we see … that type of communication that a politician will do in Japan shifting?
Klingner: There may be additional security measures implemented. Prime Minister Kishida said that this Sunday’s [parliamentary] upper house election will continue, although with additional safety measures, unspecified, to be implemented.
But [on] the Japanese political landscape, really, there is no distance between politicians and the citizenry, so that this assassin, as well as other citizens, could get very close to Abe, as well as other politicians. They often show up at railroad stations or subway stations to press the flesh with the voting public. So we may see additional steps now to take safety measures for politicians.
Blair: American media has been seemingly pretty harsh about Abe’s legacy. I have some stuff from NPR; they tweeted a header describing him as a divisive conservative. Later on in an NPR piece describing what happened, they described him as an ultra nationalist. Is that a fair assessment?
Klingner: There’s a lot about Abe and his legacy. So, his policies were, I think, very strong on national defense, on affirming Japan’s security role in the region, which has been limited since the end of World War II by a pacifist Constitution and just a cultural resistance to expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces.
Abe was pushing and he accomplished a great deal: the first National Security Council creation, the first National Security Strategy. He really was the visionary behind what became the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which the U.S. later embraced. So, [he was] really a very accomplished statesman.
He also did have what would be seen as nationalist beliefs. He believed that Japan had suitably apologized for its role, not only in World War II, but its 1910 and 1945 … very brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula. And he did espouse views that seem to downplay Japan’s participation and responsibility for those actions, and that generated a lot of controversy. … You need to separate his policies from his personal beliefs, which did tend to have nationalist tones.
Blair: You mentioned that Fumio Kishida, currently the prime minister of Japan, is probably going to continue a lot of those policies that Abe had put into place beforehand.
Klingner: I think it will continue. And what we’ve seen is—because Mr. Abe was divisive, because of his nationalist beliefs—he was unable to achieve some of his security goals in many ways, because of that legacy of his views. Mr. Kishida does not carry that same baggage. And also, given North Korea’s and China’s continuing bad behavior, encroachments on the sovereignty in the East and South China Sea by Beijing, North Koreans continuing nuclear and missile tests, etc., there’s a growing support among the Japanese public for stronger security roles.
And two issues in particular: Japan striving to double its defense budget to perhaps 2% of its GDP, as well as Japan acquiring what would be called retaliatory-based strike capabilities or attacking North Korean or Chinese missile units after they have already fired an initial attack on Japan. Both of those issues would’ve been very unheard of in the mainstream political discussion even two years ago. And now they’re being discussed by Mr. Kishida as well as mainstream pundits and politicians.
So that’s not necessarily because of Mr. Abe, but because the security environment has been seen as increasingly being degraded by Chinese and North Korean actions.
Blair: Given that this is a domestic security concern and that Abe was murdered before he was able to get a lot of these things like the constitutional shift away from not being able to have a formal military. Currently, Japan has a Self-Defense Force, which is not really a military, but kind of a military in name only. Does that seem to impact how that will go forward now that there is a domestic security concern as well?
Klingner: It’s hard to say. I don’t know if there will be a sense of “We need to fulfill Abe’s legacy by implementing the policies he advocated,” because Mr. Kishida in essence already does that. I think there will be a collective shock in Japan, perhaps such as what the U.S. went through when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, or Robert Kennedy, just a stunned nation. But I think on the policies, it won’t really have an effect.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-up here … how should we view Abe’s legacy and how should we view how it will impact Japan going forward?
Klingner: I think it’s a very positive legacy on the policy side. He really had to take the ball and run with it against a lot of domestic resistance to having Japan have a stronger military, to stand up to the threats from China and North Korea, which were not always understood by others in his party or his country.
And he really put a lot of political capital into achieving security successes that I don’t think anyone else would’ve been able to do. They either did not have the acumen or just the star power that Mr. Abe had. So he was able to push it.
And as I said earlier, that said, he did have a stigma of being a nationalist. So any step that Japan took to improve its security was instantly interpreted by Japan’s neighbors—China, North and South Korea—as a dangerous return to Japan’s militarism of the 1930s and ’40s.
The current [Japanese] leaders don’t have that legacy. So I think they will be able to further Mr. Abe’s policies really in an easier way. Because he not only broke the ice on those policies and set the path, but also they won’t have that contentious persona that Mr. Abe was seen to have.
Blair: Absolutely. In the meantime, we wish the best to the people of Japan and Mr. Abe’s family as they go through this. That was Bruce Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow specializing in Korean and Japanese affairs. Bruce, thank you so much for joining us and explaining everything that’s going on.
Klingner: Thank you for having me.
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