The assassination of Shinzo Abe appears to have had no political motive, but it may yet herald a significant shift in Japanese politics. Public attitudes to the country’s international position were already hardening, a change reflected in Abe’s tough stances, and this process is now likely to accelerate. Abe’s popularity will soar in the aftermath of his murder, producing greater willingness to consider his once-controversial ideas. These include the need to finally abandon Japan’s pacifism in the face of the great regional threat from Beijing.
On the morning of July 8th, Japan’s former prime minister was shot twice midway through a campaign speech: first in the neck, opening a carotid artery, and then, decisively, in the heart. Abe was airlifted to hospital in the nearby city of Kashihara, where, five-and-a-half hours after the shooting, the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history was pronounced dead. Police quickly arrested 41-year-old Yamagami Tetsuya, who made no attempt to resist and told them only that he was angry about Abe’s supposed connection to an unspecified religious group. The nature of the crime has come as a particular shock to a country with ultra-strict gun laws—obtaining any gun permit requires a whole series of classes and certificates and police visits to the applicant’s home.
Chinese social media is lighting up, and the country’s pestilent swarms of ultra-nationalists are extolling the killer as a “hero.” The two nations have long shared a mutual loathing, the legacy of centuries of conflict culminating in two Sino-Japanese Wars. Japanese forces won the first of these (1894–5) decisively—a shock to the late-period Qing, who had famously dismissed their opponents as “dwarf pirates.” The second war, fought from 1937–45, is mostly remembered for the “Rape of Nanking”: six black weeks during which Japanese occupying troops rampaged through what is today Nanjing committing tens of thousands of rapes and hundreds of thousands of murders.
Modern Chinese education places great emphasis on that atrocity. Some Japanese history textbooks, meanwhile, have whitewashed it, and certain politicians have even denied that the massacre ever occurred (Abe controversially visited shrines for the dead that included war criminals). As a result, bad blood continues to stain relations between the two countries. In my own experience, plenty of Chinese acquaintances over the years have confessed a related hatred for all things Japanese.
However, Abe was not just any Japanese leader, and his race was not the only mark against his name in the eyes of the typical Chinese nationalist. During his second administration (2012–20), various attempts were made to claim a greater role for Japan on the global stage. This would be a role primarily informed by the era-defining threat of the Chinese Communist Party. Abe was the key architect of the “Quad”—an intermittent alliance with Australia, India, and the US, intended to counter the influence of the CCP—and also of the “free and open Indo-Pacific concept.” This involved the promotion of liberal principles throughout the region’s markets and freedom of navigation in its waters, even as the area began to slowly fall under the creeping shadow of Beijing.
Vital links were forged with the Trump administration during America’s historic China shift, but Abe displayed none of Trump’s inconstancy on Beijing. Indeed, it was Abe who rescued the floundering Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after Trump’s withdrawal, relaunching it as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). China cannot hope to join this increasingly important trade agreement without meeting “high standards for regulations on e-commerce, intellectual property, and state-owned enterprises”—an impossible task for the foreseeable future. Fraud and theft have always been the oil on which the Communist Party runs.
It’s now widely acknowledged that the CCP spent decades integrating China with the global system in order to make the Party indispensable. Abe was one of the key figures involved in beginning the arduous process of disentanglement. It was his ¥244 billion programme that encouraged Japanese firms to diversify their supply chains away from China. “Asia for the rule of law,” he declared in his IISS Shangri-La Dialogue keynote address, and his listeners knew immediately for whom the line was intended. Over the years, Abe became a persistent thorn in Beijing’s side: early among world leaders in recognising the dangers of the CCP’s loan-sharking Belt and Road Initiative, he pressured the EU to address it.
And he wanted to go much further. He suggested a rewrite of Japan’s pacifist constitution (the legacy of defeat in 1945), specifically the mandate that “land, sea, and air forces … will never be maintained.” This was too much for the Japanese public while Abe was alive; perhaps in death it will seem less extreme. Indeed, Japan has actually been moving in this direction for some time. The nation’s post-war Self-Defense Forces are supposed to act in accordance with their name, but over the years, their remit has steadily increased. In 2001, they were finally permitted to fight terrorism overseas; in 2015, they were finally permitted to defend allies in combat. Another expansion may be imminent.
Abe’s efforts were largely focused on Taiwan, the country most immediately threatened by Communist Party belligerence. Recognising the catastrophe that a Chinese invasion would bring—for Japan, the region, and the world—Abe turned himself (in the grateful words of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen) into Taiwan’s “staunchest ally.” He called for the United States to discard its longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the island, a policy he thought outdated, and instead “make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.”
The former prime minister spent recent months publicly warning the CCP of “economic suicide” were they to invade, and thanks to Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping now has a clear view of the future. He knows that when he finally sends the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army across the Taiwan Strait, they will likely find themselves dealing with both the US and Japan. (Historically, we should remember, Japan’s combat record has rarely been less than formidable.)
Chinese state media has not joined netizens in gloating over Abe’s death: instead it is expressing concerns that “Japanese right-wing forces” will now be galvanised to further promote the free and open Indo-Pacific concept, leading to “security risks.” These fears are probably well-founded. While the average brainwashed nationalist exults in a small and spiteful victory, the Party’s leaders sense danger.
July 10th will see the upper house elections for which Abe had been campaigning at the moment he was shot. A powerful presence in Japanese politics even after retirement, Abe will now loom larger than ever. His Liberal Democratic Party was already on course to win a majority of seats, and any higher-than-normal turnout is sure to favour the LDP. It needs 82 of 124 contested seats in order to gain the super-majority required to initiate a debate and vote on changing the constitution. The Japan we grew up with was always a historical anomaly, and we may be about to see it come to an end.