Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot fatally on Friday in Nara, Japan. File Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun / Kunihiko Miura / via AFP

Japan is well known to be one of the safest countries in the world. Gun ownership is tightly controlled and tends to be limited only to the members of organized crime syndicates, who are known as yakuza.

The sole case of political violence during the past half century was a terrorist attack on the Tokyo underground railway in 1995 by a small, somewhat lunatic cult called Aum Shinrikyo.

Like any country, Japan sees occasional random acts of violence by troubled individuals, but nothing of a political nature. That is why the assassination of the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is both surprising and, of course, shocking.

The shooting took place at a campaign event in Nara, one of Japan’s historic capital cities. Security at such events is light, for violence or even disruption is virtually unknown, which is probably why the gunman could manage to get close to Mr Abe.

On Sunday July 10th Japan goes to the polls for elections to its House of Councillors, the upper and therefore junior of the two chambers of its national legislature (known together as “the Diet” in English, for that actually German term was imported for the purpose in the late 19th Century and is used in translations of the 1948 Constitution, but it is “Kokkai” in Japanese).

Until this shooting, the most common word being used to describe the election campaign was “boring”. Now it has become far too exciting, for all the wrong reasons.

The fact that the previous high-profile act of political violence in Japan directed at a serving politician was a knife attack on Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, when he was prime minister in 1960, gives the Nara killing an extra poignancy. Kishi was stabbed six times by an assailant shortly after achieving agreement on a new, stronger and fiercely disputed security treaty with the United States, but he survived.

This family history also, however, underlines the fact that while Friday’s murder was pretty clearly the work of one disturbed individual, it nevertheless must be seen as a political act.

The arrested man, who served in the Maritime Self Defense Force (Japan’s navy) for three years until 2005, is reported by police to have said that his motive was not Abe’s political beliefs. Whatever the truth of that, what can be said is that, like his grandfather, Abe was what in Japan amounts to a political celebrity, both because of the political dynasty he belonged to and because of his unusual longevity in office.

With that celebrity came controversy. Both Kishi and his grandson were nationalist figures, both keen on strengthening Japan’s security; and Abe made no secret of the fact that he admired his grandfather’s legacy and wished to continue it, ideally by achieving a revision to the country’s 1948 Constitution to eliminate its formal pacifism and to the role of the country’s military. Yet during his two terms in office, from 2006-07 and from 2012-20, he did not succeed in that aim.

What he did do was greatly to clarify and strengthen Japan’s foreign policy, and to raise its defense budget steadily but modestly, while succeeding in implementing a “reinterpretation” of the constitution to allow Japanese military forces to fight in support of an ally, if necessary.Abe was, nonetheless, undeniably a nationalist figure, one who held sometimes controversial views about Japan’s wartime history, most notably on the “comfort women” from Korea and other occupied countries who were forced to work in military brothels.

In office, he was rather quieter about those revisionist views than he had been as a freer individual, for his principal goal was to build stronger and deeper diplomatic and security relationships right across the Indo-Pacific, including South-East Asia, India and, with greater difficulty, Japan’s neighbor and former colony of South Korea.

This he succeeded in doing, with arguably his final triumph being the resurrection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership for trade and investment between 11 countries after President Donald Trump had withdrawn from it in early 2017.

Thanks in part to his sheer longevity in office, which provided diplomatic continuity and credibility, Abe’s main legacy will be that much more outward-looking and well-entrenched foreign posture, along with institutions such as the TPP (now called the Comprehensive and Progressive TPP), which improve the prospects both of preserving and extending the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and of balancing China’s influence in the region.

Abe also initiated in 2007 the so-called “Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue bringing together India, Australia, the United States and Japan, although this has had a bumpier ride mainly owing to India’s determination to remain autonomous and avoid deep engagement, and Australia’s concern about offending China.

After a brief life during Abe’s first term as prime minister, the Quad essentially went dormant from 2008 until 2017 when it was revived. It really started to take full shape only during the past two years, after Abe had left office.

Abe’s big failure was his sustained attempt to become closer to Russia, as a balance to China, as a way to diversify Japan’s energy sources and in the hope of regaining some of the four islands just north of Japan that Soviet forces occupied in 1945. That attempt failed some years ago, and has now been firmly overtaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, his overall firm, outward-looking foreign policy stance will be Abe’s clearest and most enduring legacy. His efforts to promote his domestic economic policy as an “Abenomics” which would transform the nation’s economic strength largely fizzled out.

Naturally, being in office for seven straight years meant that his government had achievements against his name in areas such as labor law, corporate governance, official secrets and even, to a lesser extent, female empowerment, but historians will not count them as transformational.

His foreign policy too contained many elements of continuity from previous governments by his Liberal Democratic Party. Nevertheless, he will be remembered both for giving that foreign policy a clear purpose, clear voice and clear agenda, as well as for institutional reforms such as creating a national security secretariat which made that foreign policy’s design and implementation more effective.

That Abe legacy is the basis for the current prime minister’s seemingly surprisingly decisive and coherent response to the invasion of Ukraine. When as seems very likely Prime Minister Fumio Kishida succeeds in raising Japan’s defense budget toward or even to the NATO target of 2% of GDP (it is 1.24% now, on NATO standards), he will in effect be continuing, as well as benefiting from, Abe’s work.

Formerly editor-in-chief of The Economist, which he had served earlier as Tokyo bureau chief, Bill Emmott is currently chairman of the Japan Society of the UK, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the International Trade Institute. This article was originally published on his Substack blog and is republished with kind permission.

Bill Emmott

Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is the author of The Fate of the West.