As a result of a sudden and shocking political assassination, the first of its kind for decades in the contemporary history of Japan, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe passed away in July.
Abe was the longest-serving prime minister of Japan since the end of World War II. He was also a leader who had a deep-rooted impact on the history of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that ruled Japan for most of the period that followed the defeat of the country in World War II and its occupation by US armed forces.
The post-war years witnessed the drafting and adoption of a new Japanese constitution that set out a new path for this important East Asian country focusing on according priority to the development of the economy, education, and scientific research.
Abe assumed the post of prime minister twice, the first time for only a year between 2006 and 2007. He suddenly declared in September 2007 that he would not be able to continue as prime minister due to a sudden deterioration in his health. He had come to power one year earlier to succeed another legend of post-war Japan and of the LDP, namely Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister of the country between 2001 and 2006. Koizumi introduced drastic economic reforms and expanded Japan’s privatisation policy.
The second time Abe came to power was after a landslide victory by the LDP in the 2012 legislative elections, after which it was able to lead a new ruling coalition. This comeback came three years after the 2009 elections, when the LDP lost power in one of the very few times when it lost elections in Japan’s post-war history. After this second return to power in 2012, Abe served as prime minister for the following eight years, during which he led the LDP to victory in more than one set of legislative and local elections.
In 2020, Abe again suddenly declared, as he had done in 2007, that he would resign the post of prime minister due to renewed health problems. However, in both cases, and even when out of office, he maintained his active membership of the Japanese parliament. He also played an influential role in supporting the LDP and its successive governments and policies, and he continued to be one of the main symbols and leaders of the party. When he was the victim of the assassination attempt that eventually took his life, he was addressing a LDP electoral meeting.
During the years I lived and worked in Japan, I had the opportunity to meet Abe, both when he was serving as prime minister and when he was only a member of the parliament and one of the leaders of the LDP. He had a strong personality that commanded a lot of respect and admiration. He also possessed exceptional capabilities as an orator who managed to leave a deep impact on his audiences, whether they numbered in the hundreds or the thousands.
Abe had a high degree of patriotism and a sincere love for his country, things that were particularly appreciated by his supporters and affiliates in the LDP. However, sometimes his opponents considered his patriotism to be a form of extreme nationalism that could risk being interpreted as potentially returning to the prevailing ideological paradigm of pre-war Japan. Other opponents perceived his patriotic discourse as coming from his supposed ideological affinity to the Japanese nationalist right-wing.
Empire Day is one of the most important national festivals in Japan, and it has been observed every year since 1873. It takes place on 11 February to celebrate the anniversary of the ascendance to the throne of the Japanese emperor Jinmu. An outstanding Japanese public figure is chosen to be a keynote speaker at this festival every year, addressing important figures in Japanese society, among them the emperor and the empress along with the ambassadors of foreign countries accredited in Japan as well as important business and industry figures, intellectuals, artists, and media representatives.
During the years when I lived in Japan, and in a period when the LDP was in opposition, I had the opportunity to be invited to the Empire Day celebrations one year. The speaker on that occasion was the late Shinzo Abe, or “Abe-san” as the Japanese people used to call him. He was then a member of the parliament in between his first term as prime minister in 2006-2007 and his second term in 2012-2020. Abe gave his speech while the late Japanese emperor Akihito and the then empress Michiko sat in the front row of the audience.
As usual, Abe was outspoken and talked about the need for Japan to acquire, in addition to its economic, scientific, and technological strength, the kind of political and military strength that would allow it to defend itself against any external aggression and acquire the global and regional standing it deserved and set it on an equal footing to its economic and technological weight worldwide.
When Abe returned to power as prime minister in 2012, he was trying to translate this orientation to the reality on the ground. This included measures aimed at enhancing the capabilities of the Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF), the Japanese armed forces. He worked to introduce legislative changes that would allow the SDF to undertake missions abroad with a view to contributing to the maintenance of peace and security at the international and regional levels.
I cannot conclude this article without referring to the fact that the late Shinzo Abe visited Egypt twice, the first time during his first mandate as prime minister in May 2007 and the second time during his second mandate in January 2015. He also played a leading role in Japan’s approval of generous funding and state-of-the-art technical support for the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) project.
* The writer is a commentator.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.