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Shinzo Abe's policies take on renewed significance for Japan

Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media upon his arrival at his office in Tokyo in 2020.
Kazuhiro Nogi
AFP via Getty Images
Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media upon his arrival at his office in Tokyo in 2020.

Shinzo Abe was Japan's longest-serving and perhaps its most consequential prime minister in the post-war era.

Over the course of a political career spanning decades, Abe championed policies that have reshaped Japanese foreign and defense policy to this day.

Abe's assassination Friday during an event in the city of Nara has prompted the world to reflect on these policies and what they attempted and actually accomplished for Japan.

He pushed through an economic program dubbed "Abenomics" aimed at reviving Japan's moribund economy. It had limited success.

Abe proposed the idea for the Quad, a grouping of four like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific to take on China's growing heft in the region, and tried to create an expanded role for the country's military.

A traditionally pacifist nation, Abe's ideas have taken on greater importance in recent months after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Abe attempted to amend a particular clause of the country's pacifist constitution, which has been in place since the end of World War II, throughout his two stints as prime minister.

Article 9 says Japan cannot use war as a means of settling international disputes. But Abe felt that was outdated and would leave Japan vulnerable against the ascending military might of neighboring China and an erratic North Korea.

Abe was able to push through legislation that allowed Japan's Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside allies overseas, but his goal of overhauling Article 9 was hugely divisive in Japan and never fulfilled.

The war in Ukraine is now forcing Japan to re-examine its foreign policy and defence policies, including Article 9 of the constitution.

"I think the Russian aggression against Ukraine showed something that was hypothetically possible, but something that many Japanese didn't imagine," said Chikako Kawakatsu Ueki, a professor of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. "And this was an aggression by a very powerful state ... against its neighbor."

Ueki said this has forced many people in Japan to examine their security and defense policy, including military spending, which currently hovers around 1% of GDP.

"People in Japan are asking 'is China another Russia? Is Japan another Ukraine? Is Taiwan another Ukraine?'" she says. "These are the questions ... which is forcing Japan to rethink its policies."

The issue of Taiwan looms large in Japan's thinking

In May, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned the situation in Ukraine could be replicated in Taiwan.

Japan is a close neighbor to the self-governed island, which Beijing claims as its own territory. The fear is Japan could get swept up in a military Chinese offensive to take Taiwan.

Earlier this year, Abe noted it was highly probable, given Japan's proximity and interests in the region, it would be sucked in militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, saying "a Taiwan contingency is a Japanese contingency."

Japan's Ministry of Defense is charting a steady uptick in activity by China's military in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

"China is beefing up its military capability at high speed and they are now deploying highly technical equipment in their territory," says Takeshi Ishikawa, a spokesman for Japan's Ministry of Defense.

It's more than just China

Analysts in Japan say the country's two other neighbors are also an ongoing issue of concern.

North Korea is continuing to develop its missile and nuclear program, and Russia and Japan have historical territorial disputes. Tensions have risen with Russia in recent months after Japan sided on Western sanctions in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. And Russia and China have continued to draw closer in recent years, such as conducting joint air and sea patrols around Japanese territory.

"So for us, the deterrence power is important to maintain the peace and stability of the region," Ishikawa said, adding that Japan will continue to work closely with the U.S.

The U.S. recently boosted its naval presence in Japan, sending five new destroyers to its base in Yokosuka.

Kunihiko Miyake, research director with the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo, said the U.S. has its own interests in deterring China.

"And by the same token, we need Americans in order to deter the Chinese because we cannot do that alone," he said. "So I think the nature of the alliance has intensified and, of course, it's in the right direction."

Tougher national security policies

Conservatives from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, want Japan to take a more hands-on approach to national security.

There's increasing talk about creating counter-strike capabilities, which would allow them to destroy incoming missiles pre-emptively. There's also talk about doubling defense spending to 2% of Japan's GDP.

Waseda University's Ueki said the public has long been opposed to such moves, but now that's changing.

"The public seems to be more in support, whereas they were opposed previously," she said. "But I think it's a fairly limited offensive capability that Japan is talking about."

Ueki said Japan needs to be cautious that such moves aren't sending the wrong signal to "potential aggressors," and that engagement with China is still important. This is, after all, a major trading partner for Japan.

Japan is due to unveil a new national security strategy later this year, the first since 2013, along with a defense strategy and defense procurement budget. The documents will lay out guidelines for the country's foreign policy and defense strategies, and could address changes to Article 9.

Hitoshi Tanaka, chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, said there have been some amendments to Article 9 over the years. In 2004, Japan deployed Self-Defense Forces to Iraq to help with reconstruction. Its navy took part in refueling missions in the Indian Ocean for U.S. fighter planes in the war in Afghanistan.

Tanaka, a former diplomat, said these missions didn't involve actual combat. He said to do that, the country would have to change the constitution in a fundamental way.

"I'm not disagreeing to have a debate on the change of the Constitution," he said. "You just don't do it while the atmosphere is quite explosive — Ukraine, Russia, China and sort of thing. Let's be quiet. Let's be cold headed."

If Japan's new national security strategy does call for far-reaching amendments to the country's pacifist constitution, it'll be one step closer to securing the late Prime Minister Abe's legacy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.