A legacy left alive, a life cut short: The tragic demise of Shinzo Abe

By Parul Bakshi

Former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, the nation’s longest-serving Prime Minister, was one of the most well-known political leaders of the 21st century. His brutal assassination in the city of Nara, during public campaigning in support of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for the upcoming upper house elections, has thus sent shock waves across the world.

Coming from a lineage of rich political legacy with his family, historically providing leadership during the Meiji Restoration along with giving to the nation as many as eight of modern Japan’s prime ministers, firmly establishes his stature in the political history of Japan. His maternal grandfather NobusukeKishi and his great uncle Eisaku Sato served as Prime Ministers of Japan, while his father Shintaro Abe had served as the Foreign Minister.

This act of violence is all the more shocking as Japan is considered one of the safest countries. While political assassinations have been rare for Japan, it was indeed an attempted assassination almost 62 years back (July 14, 1960) of Abe’s grandfather, NobusukeKishi, which stunned the Japanese public. As the then PM, against the background of the highly controversial ratification of the revised US/Japan Security Treaty, Kishiwas stabbed six times but fortunately survived. The assassination of Abe thus becomes a rare astounding event, certain to leave a scar in the memory of Japanese citizens as well as the international community.

The impact of this event will have a rippling effect across Japan, not merely limited to the upper house elections due this coming Sunday. The support of Abe and his faction within the LDP has been critical in determining the succeeding leadership of Japan since Abe’s resignation in 2020. Thus even when out of office, Abe continued to play a key role in Japanese politics. Also, the scarring result of this assassination could also have a long-term impact on the traditional aspect of political campaigning in Japan involving close contact with voters. Ramping up security within such rallies and avoiding any repetition of such a horrific incident would definitely be a priority for Japan.

A Lasting Legacy

Shinzo Abe was a charismatic leader with a robust vision for the nation, domestically as well as internationally. His tenure is known for some of the resolute stances that he took on issues that his predecessors found too controversial to take a position on.

One of the prime battles he fought was in bringing about a constitutional amendment to Article 9 of the post-war Japanese Constitution upholding pacifism. Despite being unsuccessful in the end result, he did place the question of increasing Japanese military power as a critical political and social discourse in Japan. However, it is too early to comment on how his unexpected demise may affect this existing challenge.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that Abe was indeed pivotal in establishing political stability through his steady, strong and mature leadership. He also ushered in the transformative policy of  “Abenomics” in a move to revive the stagnant economy of Japan while also bringing in the aspect of “Womenomics”, pushing for a greater role of women in the labour market. While the on-ground impact of such policies can be debated, his measures were undoubtedly extremely enterprising in the largely hesitant and status-quo loving political scenario in Japan.

He was also at the cusp of managing the political and social fallout in the aftermath of the biggest calamity modern Japan has seen – The Fukushima disaster or Triple disaster of 2011. Abe attempted to calm domestic and international fears as Japan grappled with multifold challenges post 3/11, including energy security, radiation impact, loss of livelihoods, decontamination and eroding trust towards nuclear energy.

His steadfast approach was also seen in the foreign policy pursued under his leadership, wherein he time and again voiced strong opposition towards his neighbouring countries like China, North Korea and even Russia when the need arose. This was strikingly different to the more common conservative approach often preferred by Japanese leadership.

It is the loss of this dynamic political personality that has left a gaping hole within Japanese politics not only today but also undoubtedly for the years to come.

India mourns the loss of “a dear friend”

While the international community bade a poignant farewell to the Japanese leader, his loss will have a deep impact on India. This is drawn from the fact that it was under his leadership that the existing foundations of the India-Japan bilateral relations were given a new lease of life, making the relationship deeper and stronger than ever. Abe thus came to be considered the most dependable and valuable friend of India, an image that will continue to live on in the hearts of Indians.

There are a plethora of firsts which were initiated with Abe holding the prime ministership of Japan. In 2007 he addressed the Indian parliament, becoming the only Japanese Prime Minister to have done so. With Abe visiting India four times during his two stints as PM, made him the only Japanese leader to have visited India these many times. The Indian Republic Day parade in 2014 also saw Abe as the first Japanese PM to be Chief Guest at this event. It was in the same year, in September, that PM Modi chose Japan for his first bilateral visit outside the neighbourhood.

The personal rapport and friendship shared by the two leaders, Modi and Abe, was witnessed across the globe at almost every meeting of theirs. Abe was warmly welcomed to India in 2017, and an open vehicle roadshow was conducted in Ahmedabad,  making it the first time that PM Modi had held a joint roadshow with a visiting head of a foreign country. The pictures of Abe and his wife in traditional Indian wear left a deep positive imprint on the Indian community. This warmth was reciprocated by Abe when he hosted PM Modi at his ancestral home in Yamanashi, which was the first such reception extended to a foreign leader. This mutual bond was reflected in the deepening ties between the two nations, creating common goodwill and understanding.

Abe’s contribution is unparalleled and manifold in helping the two nations attain “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” status. From the traditional spheres of cooperation through culture, economy, and security, the partnership has extended to cyberspace, outer space and energy. It has encompassed aspects like infrastructure development in India through initiatives such as the Delhi Metro and Mumbai–Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor as well as efforts which are being undertaken in the North-East region of India to enhance connectivity.

The Indo-Japan nuclear deal was also a cornerstone in strengthening the bilateral relationship as the Abe government was able to sign the agreement in 2016, despite India not being a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This proved to be highly beneficial for India when dealing with other international nuclear firms and promoting nuclear energy cooperation.

Furthermore, it was in August 2007 when Abe, during his visit to India, delivered the “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech, which laid the foundation of the now popular and strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific. Abe was, therefore, instrumental in firmly establishing the central position of India within the Indo-Pacific. Today the India-Japan relationship is seen as being the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific policy and the resultant Quad grouping. This has helped both nations to leverage their partnership for building a constructive and stabilising presence in the region.

The two countries have also announced, “Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership Working Together for Peace and Prosperity of the Indo-Pacific Region and the World” as a blueprint for future growth and enhancement of the bilateral relationship. This enhancement of bilateral ties has been repeatedly reflected at multilateral levels through initiatives like the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, Act East Forum, as well as during G-20 meetings, ASEAN+6, etc.

Shinzo Abe has thus been not only one of the most consequential leaders of Japan in its post-war history but also an unwavering ally of India. In order to honour his lasting contribution to building the bilateral ties, Abe was bestowed with the Padma Vibhushan in 2021, which is India’s second-highest civilian honour.

Many Indians also associate the place of his killing, Nara, as the location which established the first direct contact between the two countries in 752 AD, through Buddhism and Indian monk Bodhisena. It is a sad turn of events that now this location would also serve to be a reminder of the gruesome demise of a beloved leader.

It is deeply unfortunate that the tragic news of Abe’s death comes in the middle of the 70th year of commemorating the diplomatic relationship between India and Japan. The imprint left by Abe will forever be central to the strong ties between the two nations. India mourns the death of its friend and ally, a loss that will be felt for years to come.

(Author is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and co-editor of the book “India-Japan Relations @70: Building Beyond the Bilateral”. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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