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The tallest leader in Japan’s post-World War II history, who raised the nation out of the guilt of its colonial past, was assassinated this morning by a lone gunman, who’s motive remains unclear at the time of this writing. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 67, was shot twice while delivering an election speech in the city of Nara, by Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, a former member of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has called off its campaign for elections to the Upper House, due July 10.
Initial reports by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK suggest that the two-barrel gun was made by the shooter himself, which suggests premeditation and a high degree of planning for the murder. The use of 3-D technology has not been confirmed, but in May 2014, a 27-year-old Japanese national was arrested in Tokyo for illegally possessing handguns made by a 3-D printer. Police found five plastic guns and a 3-D printer at the suspect’s home in Kawasaki; two handguns were later proved capable of killing or wounding people, although no bullets were found, NHK reported.
As shockwaves reverberated around the world, India and Taiwan would feel the loss most deeply. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “I am shocked and saddened beyond words at the tragic demise of one of my dearest friends, Shinzo Abe. He was a towering global statesman, an outstanding leader, and a remarkable administrator. He dedicated his life to make Japan and the world a better place.”
In Taiwan, leader Tsai Ing-Wen called Abe “not only a good friend of mine, but also a staunch friend of Taiwan’s”. Writing on Facebook, she said, “He has supported Taiwan for many years and spared no effort to promote the progress of Taiwan-Japan relations.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China, tweeted, “We’re deeply shocked & saddened by the shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Such an illegal & violent act is utterly unacceptable & roundly condemned. The people & government of Taiwan stand with Japan at this difficult time.”
Shinzo Abe had the prescience to foresee that India must be involved in the maritime security of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, and that the two waters cannot be treated separately. In 2007, during his first term as Japan’s prime minister, Abe addressed the Indian Parliament and posited the notion of the “confluence of the two seas … a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in “broader Asia”. This resonated with Washington’s Proliferation Security Initiative (2004) to counter sea-borne proliferation of WMDs focused on the waters from West Asia (Iran and Syria) to Northeast Asia (North Korea).
China’s rising assertion in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean led many military strategists to realise the inadequacy of the term “Asia-Pacific”. India, a regional “net security provider”, needed to be included. Washington clumsily expanded “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Asia Pacific”. Then, in 2007, India’s maritime strategist Gurpreet S. Khurana coined the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ to designate the maritime space comprising the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, with the states of Asia (including West Asia/Middle East) and eastern Africa forming its littoral. His aim was to show that Asian nations are linked together from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific and that global and regional stability can be assured through commercial and strategic maritime cooperation. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ brought India into the affairs of maritime Asia, though it bears noting that “Indo” stands for Indian Ocean, not India. Washington and Canberra adopted the term and since 2014, Prime Minister Modi’s revitalized Act East Policy has added muscle to the Indo-Pacific concept.
It was only natural that Shinzo Abe should become the main inspiration behind the QUAD (US, Australia, India and Japan), to face the challenge of China in the maritime domain. Although not officially a military alliance, the members cooperate in military exercises that sometimes give it the appearance of a military alliance. In November 2016, Japan signed a civilian nuclear deal with India and gave New Delhi access to nuclear fuel, equipment and technology to produce nuclear power, despite the fact that India is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Abe gave India its first bullet train; he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2021.
Shinzo Abe was a strong advocate of Japan’s reassertion on the world stage, and of revoking the clause in the American-dictated Constitution that enforced pacifism upon it. He wanted militarisation, including perhaps even nuclear weapons (though the Fukushima tragedy will keep that on the back burner for some time). He took a bold stand on the security and independence of Taiwan.
For India the loss is immeasurable. Abe had the foresight to appreciate the need for keeping India on the high table of world powers, as a self-confident India instantly empowers friends and neighbours like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, et al. As the news spread, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi issued a statement conveying “her sympathies in the name of G20 foreign ministers to the Japanese foreign minister”. Former American President Donald Trump said the attack was a “tremendous blow to the wonderful people of Japan, who loved and admired him so much”.
Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister in September 2020 due to poor health, something he had done in 2007 as well after an intestinal ailment (ulcerative colitis) made it difficult for him to function properly. He returned in 2012 and launched a three-pronged “Abenomics” strategy to beat persistent deflation and revive economic growth with an easy monetary policy and fiscal spending, along with structural reform to cope with a fast-ageing, shrinking population.
Author Kapil Komireddi observes that Abe pulled Japan out of prolonged political instability and presided over the longest period of economic expansion in her post-war history, with the lowest unemployment rate in a quarter century. He introduced free preschool and day care for children between the ages of 3 and 5 and facilitated the entry of a record number of women into the workforce. (The man who restored Japan, 3 September, 2020)
He was alive to the missile and nuclear threats from North Korea, backed by Beijing. Realizing that America was in retreat, Abe stood up for democratic Asia and tried to work with the unpredictable President Trump. When Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Justin Trudeau also reneged, leaving Abe to announce Ottawa’s exit and shoulder the responsibility of keeping the deal alive with the remaining countries. The survival of the TPP is a testament to Abe’s statesmanship in Asia. All the while, he maintained diplomatic ties with China and Russia.
Abe’s legacy as Japan’s youngest and longest serving prime minister was somewhat tarnished by his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the coronavirus impact on the summer Olympics in Tokyo and the economy, and a series of scandals including the arrest of his former justice minister. Another issue is the abduction of Japanese citizens in North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s; of whom only five were returned in 2002. However, the rewriting of the Constitution is likely due to the changed geopolitical landscape.
Abe’s greatest achievement is that he did not let Japan take the German route to self-respect after the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. When Japan writes a new Constitution and builds a new military, it will revere the leader who paved the way.
The last high-profile assassination in Japan was the killing of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi by naval officers in 1932, in a failed coup.
Brilliant Obituary of Shinzo Abe by Sandhya Jain.
Reading her Obituary of Shinzo Abe is bound to endear many readers to the assassinated leader.
Wonderful tribute to a great man.