Death in Japan

The world was shocked on Friday by the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, shot at close range while speaking at a campaign rally for yesterday’s upper house election.

Abe retired in 2020 after almost eight years in office, making him Japan’s longest-serving leader and possibly its most consequential. His economic program, popularly tagged “Abenomics”, is credited with having revived the sluggish Japanese economy, and his campaign to strengthen military ties with Japan’s allies had major geopolitical implications.

Abe’s success has not so far, however, tempted his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to repeat the experience of dynamic leadership. It has reverted to type, with Abe succeeded by two colorless functionaries, first Yoshihide Suga and now Fumio Kishida. Nonetheless, it remains untroubled on the electoral front: it and its allies won a sweeping victory in yesterday’s House of Councillors election, regaining the two-thirds majority that they lost in 2019.

Its a sad truth that death often confers political advantage. The last Japanese prime minister to die in office was Masayoshi Ohira in 1980, who suffered a heart attack during an election campaign; his party went on to win a landslide victory, thought to be mostly due to the sympathy vote. It may well be that Abe was also more use to his party dead than alive.

No-one much these days thinks of Japan as a likely scene of assassination; violent crime generally is quite rare. But in the early part of last century, assassination was a common political weapon: two prime ministers, Hara Takashi in 1921 and Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932, were killed in office, together with a number of other officials, including two former prime ministers in a coup attempt in 1936.

The assassins were all members or supporters of the Japanese military, and the threat of assassination was a way of preventing politicians from asserting civilian control over the armed forces. It has been suggested that this was one of the factors behind the politicians’ failure to halt Japan’s drive to war in 1941 or to bring the war to a close before it brought the country to disaster.

There is therefore a grim irony in the fact that the return of assassination has targeted a politician who was distinctive in his support for the military. Both Abe’s death and the strengthened government majority will lend support to the campaign for revision of Japan’s constitution so as to give it more freedom to participate in collective defence in the region or even elsewhere.

Kishida, as a moderate in his party, had not previously championed constitutional revision, but he now says he has a responsibility to take on Abe’s legacy. It remains to be seen whether that will actually bear fruit – or indeed whether it is necessary; despite the constitution’s fine words about “forever renounc[ing] war as a sovereign right of the nation,” previous governments have reinterpreted it to allow ever-increasing military expenditure and international commitments.

There is no suggestion that Abe or his supporters actually wanted to make Japan an imperial power: the issue in east Asia is defence against the rising threat of China, and now to some extent Russia. Defence of Taiwan in particular has come to be seen more and more as a core Japanese interest. And although Kishida comes from the less nationalist wing of the LDP, as Abe’s long-serving foreign minister he worked to strengthen Japan’s international ties as a counter to China.

A commitment to peace is a fine thing, and nationalism and militarism are evils wherever they occur. But we live in dangerous times, and a country in Japan’s position may well conclude that military preparedness is not something it can afford to neglect.

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