Even the longest-serving Prime Minister could not bring Japan away from pacifism

Since this week, he’s the longest-sitting prime minister of Japan ever. But now Shinzo Abe suddenly quits. He’s having increasing health problems. The prime minister leaves Japan without fulfilling his greatest ambition: the pacifist constitution remains largely intact

Japan decided after the Second World War that the army can only be used for self-defense. The great example of Abe was his grandfather, a former top man in the Japanese regime. Nobusuk Kishi was imprisoned for years as a war criminal, but eventually became prime minister. Abe’s dream tried to come true, but there was no real end to pacifism.

The highest achievable turned out to be a different interpretation of the constitution. From 2015 ‘collective defence’ was possible. From then on, allies could also be given military assistance, despite large-scale protests from the population. “He promised a lot, but made very little of it come true”, says correspondent Kjeld Duits.


When Abe came to power in 2012, Japan had had troubled years. It was the year after the tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, which had left a large part of the country in ruins. Between 2006 and 2012 there had also been six prime ministers in power – Abe was one of them, he resigned in 2007 after one year of primeership because of his chronic bowel disease. “People spoke of revolving door premiers at the time,” says German. The population was in need of rest.

In 2012, Abe, with new medication for his bowel disease, again made a throw at the premiership. His message of economic reform, ‘Abenomics’, caught on. He was re-elected. Once in power, he would focus on three pillars: monetary easing, fiscal stimulation through government spending and substantial structural reforms.

No women in power

“That first one was quite successful, but that was also done by the central bank. Moreover, Japan was helped by a recovering economy. He was responsible for the third pillar, the reforms,” says German. “That’s where little came of it.” He also failed to keep another promise: the target for 2020 was that thirty percent of business executives should be women

“More than seventy percent of women now work in Japan, but they are often poorly paid“, says German. “Single mothers in particular can barely make ends meet.”

So that’s how Abe announced his departure today:

“He has been very lucky with the weak opposition that has been there all these years. It really fell apart during his term of office”, says German. “In addition, he was surfing an economic wave that was already going on. He was able to take advantage of that.” Meanwhile, there were many small scandals around him. But each time they didn’t turn out to be big enough to make him fall.

Abe turned out to be able to proclaim untruths with a straight face. A well-known incident dates back to 2015. “During a budget debate, an opposition member asked Abe whether he was paying the contribution for Facebook and Twitter properly,” says German. “Within a second, Abe glashard said: ‘yes, of course I paid that’, while everyone knows there’s no such thing. That characterizes Abe. He can tell an untruth without looking or blushing.”

Trade War

But that went relatively well. Where his national actions sometimes failed, he received international praise. He negotiated geopolitical matters cleverly; Japan was seen as the most reliable country in the region, with Abe as the leader of the ‘liberal order in Asia’

Beginning this year, the coronavirus came on. Outside China, Japan became one of the first countries to be hit, but Abe took hardly any measures. Chinese were able to enter the country freely for a long time and it was not until April that the state of emergency was declared nationwide. “That was far too late, was the conclusion here,”

Power struggle

Since June there is a second corona wave going on in Japan. Again, Abe was not prominently present. “My health has been deteriorating since June,” Abe said at a press conference today. “I don’t want the disease to lead to wrong policy choices.”

How it continues is not known. In Japan, the party with the most seats supplies the prime minister. Within the LDP, Abe’s party, a power struggle is therefore expected. “An opposition member said today that this step breaks open the political field,” says German. “But it’s impossible to predict what will happen.”