Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks at Japanese naval ships during a fleet review off Sagami Bay, Kanagawa prefecture, on October 18, 2015. Photo: AFP / Jiji Press

Shinzo Abe is widely criticized for his right-wing tendencies. But the fact remains that, seven and a half years after he regained the prime minister’s office, Japan stands out as the most stable member of the club of large industrial democracies politically, socially and economically.

Abe’s Japan has a low unemployment rate, an equal distribution of income, good infrastructure, few incidents of public disorder, a low crime rate and a low Covid-19 death rate. 

In short, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister is worthy of a biography. And Tobias Harris of the US-based advisory firm Teneo, whose close-up view of Japanese politics had an early boost in 2006-7 when he worked for a Japanese legislator, has proved very much up to the task.

Journalists, scholars – anyone interested in the political evolution of the leading democracy of East Asia – will need to add The Iconoclast to the reading pile.

Tracing the history of modern Japanese politics, it is both an interesting introduction to the subject and an excellent refresher course for those who have been too busy to follow it closely. 

Abe has done so much in his long career as a politician and accomplished so much since returning as prime minister in December 2012 that it is good to have all the information in one place. 

This account of his career – which includes stunning success, abject failure and mistakes that should have been avoided – provides numerous insights into the personal development of an outstanding politician, while telling us much about the Liberal Democratic Party, of which he is currently president.

In 1989, Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen published a best-seller entitled The Enigma of Japanese Power. In 1995, Chalmers Johnson – in Japan: Who Governs? – provided a scholarly answer to this question, explaining that there’s no enigma after all.

Harris chronicles how the Japanese political system and its current leader developed into what they are today. 

The story begins with Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a prominent government official and politician in the pre-war Japanese empire, an architect of colonialism in Manchuria, a member of the cabinet that declared war on America and a postwar prime minister who sacrificed his career for the Japan-US Security Treaty.

Imprisoned as a war crimes suspect after the war, Kishi was released before trial because his politics fitted American designs for Japan. But he never lost his desire to overcome the humiliation of defeat and occupation and regain for his country an independent and influential place in the world.

Abe was imbued with this vision, but had to learn to appreciate Kishi’s pragmatism the hard way – by tripping himself up with excessive idealism and ill-considered remarks about Japan’s imperial history. He also had to overcome a serious health problem that nearly put an end to his career.

After easy-going academic and business careers, notable chiefly for time spent in California and New York, he went to work for his father, Shintaro Abe, who was appointed foreign minister by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1982.

Shintaro Abe had previously served as Minister of International Trade and Industry, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and Chief Cabinet Secretary.

Then foreign minister of Japan Shintaro Abe visits General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin.

As his father’s secretary, Shinzo Abe was introduced to the upper echelons of the LDP. In 1993, after his father’s death, he won a parliamentary seat from the ancestral prefecture, Yamaguchi.

Gifted with connections, personal popularity and his grandfather’s mission, he rose quickly to become Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s chief cabinet secretary in 2005 and president of the LDP in 2006, when he succeeded Koizumi as prime minister at the age of 52.

He lasted only one year, blowing his chance at leadership through a combination of factors that included: inexperience; reliance on other young, idealist conservatives rather than senior LDP heavyweights, who were skilled at finding compromise and winning elections; seemingly petty scandals; and a serious bout of ulcerative colitis.

Beset by cramps and loss of appetite, at the end of his strength, he was forced to resign.

Abe’s worst misstep while serving as prime minister was to deny – against all historical evidence – that the Japanese Imperial Army had pressed Korean and other women – the “comfort women” – into prostitution.

This alienated Koreans, Chinese, Americans, Europeans and others, and continues to dog him today.

A picture of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe behind a statue symbolizing former ‘comfort women’ who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, during a demonstration demanding a formal apology near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, September 18, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

His greatest accomplishment was to propose an alliance of Pacific and Indian Ocean democracies to contain China. Largely ignored at the time, this concept evolved into the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy now promoted by the US and the Quad military association linking Japan, the United States, India and Australia.

In 2009, after politicians Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso had also passed through what had become a revolving door to the prime minister’s office, the LDP was defeated in a landslide by Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.

Not only Abe, but the conservative coalition that had dominated Japanese politics since 1955 had collapsed.

Abe spent his time out of power reflecting on his failure, rebuilding his health through mountain climbing and taking up the leadership of the conservative wing of the LDP. In this, he was supported by allies who are prominent in his government today, notably Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Suga, in particular, pushed him to make a comeback.

The DPJ soon proved itself to be even more inept than its immediate predecessors and, in December 2012, Abe returned as prime minister in his own landslide victory. 

The LDP was now in coalition with Komeito, a centrist party affiliated with the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai. This coalition has proved to be extraordinarily stable, winning election after election by margins wide enough to allow Abe to implement many of the policies he had come to favor over the years.

The list is long, encompassing economic, diplomatic, defense and social issues. But as Abe noted in early 2013: The most important thing is to restore pride and confidence in yourself, is it not?”

Abe’s top priority, which both informed and was supported by his policies, was to escape from the defeatism generated by Japan’s “lost decades” of economic stagnation, a prolonged and debilitating deflation and the passive acceptance of a deteriorating and increasingly dangerous international environment. 

Abe has presided over fast and loose economic policies. Image: AFP

Perhaps the best known of the new Abe administration’s policies was the one he had adopted most recently, reflationary economics. Known as “Abenomics,” it included loose monetary policy, expansionary fiscal policy and structural reform.

Monetary policy, led by Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, combined “quantitative easing” – buying government bonds and other financial assets – and a 2% inflation target. The inflation target was missed year after year, but deflationary expectations were overcome and the yen weakened to levels favorable to Japanese business. 

A weaker yen, of course, was a key policy goal, not a side effect as claimed at the time. Corporate profits, tax receipts and the stock market all rose, but growth was never high enough to balance the budget. 

The BOJ eventually bought up more than half of Japanese government bonds outstanding, resulting in a large but often overlooked reduction in the government’s net debt position. Interest rates were cut to zero, contributing to a building boom in Tokyo and other cities.

Fiscal policy was deployed to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. This included preparations for the 2020 Olympics, which have been postponed due to Covid-19. The Tokyo Metro, the high-speed Shinkansen and other railway networks, as well as expressways, have been expanded and modernized. 

Structural reform included the deregulation of agriculture and of electric power distribution, the appointment of more women as government officials, the improvement of corporate governance and efforts to mitigate the impact of part-time employment on consumption and social equality.

To the shock of free-market purists, Abe jawboned big business to raise wages.

But the most radical structural reform was the conversion of mercantilist Japan into a proponent of free trade. Abe successfully argued that it was in Japan’s interest to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

After the TTP was abandoned by Donald Trump, he led the international campaign to keep it alive.

Prime Minister Abe welcomed by Donald Trump beside Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner in New York, November 17, 2016. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet the US president-elect. Photo: AFP/Cabinet Secretariat

Renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and nicknamed the TPP-11, it includes the original 12 signatories minus the US. The CPTPP is now open to new members in Asia and Latin America.

Even the UK is likely to join, with the support of Japan.

In 2018, Japan and the European Union signed an economic partnership agreement and a complementary strategic partnership agreement. The EPA created the world’s largest free trade agreement.

The EPA covers a wide range of issues including environmental protection, data and cyber security and efforts to combat corruption, money laundering, illicit drugs and terrorism. 

Threatened by China’s expanding military presence in the East and South China Seas and by North Korean ballistic missile tests, Abe raised defense spending, stepped up cooperation with the US military, increased military assistance to ASEAN countries and strengthened ties with Australia and India.

He also created a National Security Council and, in the face of vociferous opposition and mass demonstrations, enacted a specially designated secrets law to prevent leaks of information crucial to national security.

Responding to American demands and his own sense of how a confident nation should behave, his government redefined self-defense to include collective security. In view of North Korea’s missile tests, the addition of a “first strike capability” to the definition seems likely to be the next step in the erosion of Japan’s “peace constitution.” True constitutional revision, however, has eluded him.

To the surprise of many and disgust of some, Abe worked hard to develop and maintain a good relationship with Donald Trump. By positioning Japan as an essential partner in America’s crusade against China, he has so far dodged Trump’s wrath against countries that run trade surpluses with the US.

Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

Abe also worked hard to improve relations with Russia, failing to achieve the return of the “Northern Territories” – the southern Kurile Islands – but developing a broader relationship that increases both countries’ economic and strategic options.

All this leaves Japan closer to the goals of Abe and his grandfather, but still faced with hostility from China and both Koreas, a high degree of economic uncertainty and the problems of demographic decline. But politics is the art of the possible, and progress has been made on many fronts. 

More might have been accomplished without the distraction of additional scandals that, again, seem petty and unnecessary. These remind us that Abe is not only a statesman but a politician, in the ordinary sense of the word.

The book’s main text ends too soon, in 2019, with the author abandoning his play-by-play account of Abe’s career to speculate on the impact of climate change on his legacy. But the Afterword provides a detailed update through May 2020. Don’t ignore it – it ties the book together in a conclusive way that the last numbered chapter does not.

The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan by Tobias Harris, London: Hurst Publishers, £25.

Scott Foster studied Japanese politics and economics at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with Japan scholars Nathaniel B. Thayer and George R. Packard, both of whom had served in the Edwin O. Reischauer embassy in Tokyo.