Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped down this month as the country’s longest-serving premier, having surpassed the record set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato, who served as prime minister from 1964 to 1972. It seemed unlikely a decade ago that Abe would lead Japan successfully for nearly eight years. He endured an ill-fated stint as prime minister between 2006 and 2007, when gaffes, scandals, an electoral setback, and, ultimately, ill health forced him to leave office early. But his comeback in 2012 ushered in an astonishing period of stability and prosperity—one whose longevity Japan may never see again.

Japan changed prime ministers roughly once a year in the period that began with Abe’s first premiership in 2006 and ended with his reelection in 2012. It appeared then that Japan’s leaders were not equal to the tasks their country faced. Japan recovered slowly from the global financial crisis of 2008. In 2011, the then ruling center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) mishandled the reconstruction process after Japan’s northeast was devastated by a record-breaking earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. From the moment he won the presidency of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a come-from-behind victory in September 2012, Abe insisted that Japan faced a multifaceted crisis but recognized that the public had little confidence in the ability of political leaders to address it. “I felt very keenly that trust in our party has not yet returned completely and that the stern eye of the public continues to be cast on politics as a whole,” he said upon regaining the premiership.

But it was far from obvious in December 2012, when he was reelected prime minister, that Abe would not only survive for the next seven years and eight months but lead his party to victory in another five elections, enjoy consistently strong approval ratings until his final months, and dominate Japan’s political system as no leader had before. Abe delivered the stability desired by many Japanese voters, and he did so at a time when many of Japan’s peers in the democratic world struggled with insurgent populist politics, unstable governments, and even democratic backsliding.

Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s newly elected successor, promises an extension of the Abe years, offering continuity, not change. But Suga may not be as fortunate as his predecessor, and his tenure will almost certainly be shorter. Not only did Abe have to be good to hold office longer than any other Japanese prime minister—he had to be lucky.

GOOD FORTUNE

Abe’s tenure coincided with an extraordinarily long stretch of global economic growth. During the 2010s, the global economy avoided a major crisis and growth was steady from year to year, ensuring that Japanese companies could count on foreign demand for Japanese goods. Japanese retailers also benefited from increased tourism, particularly from neighboring Asian countries whose middle classes were expanding. And friendly governments and foreign investors were keen to support Abe’s new government when it launched the reflationary program that came to be known as “Abenomics,” which pushed the yen down from historic highs against the U.S. dollar to levels not seen since before the crisis, thereby boosting Japanese exports. These conditions led to record-high corporate profits, record-low unemployment and rising workforce participation among women, the elderly, and foreign workers, and the highest tax revenues the Japanese government had collected since the early 1990s. The rising tide of the global economy might not explain all of Abe’s success, but it certainly helped.

In addition to favorable macroeconomic trends, Abe benefited from political fatigue in the Japanese electorate. He inherited a public eager for stability after years of fierce partisan competition, populist politics, and short-lived prime ministers. It is commonly argued that Japan has been spared the right-wing populist politics seen in many other democracies during the past decade, but Japan did experience its own populist wave in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Politicians bashed bureaucrats and pledged sweeping institutional reforms. In the first years of the twenty-first century, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi railed against “resistance forces” and promised to destroy the LDP—his own party. In 2009, the DPJ won a large majority on a platform that promised to break the power of the bureaucracy. Both the LDP under Koizumi and the DPJ won large majorities in consecutive elections by pledging to uproot entrenched interests that had squandered public funds and made government work for the few instead of the many.

By 2012, however, voters appeared to have lost their appetite for heated political rhetoric and big promises of reform, thanks in part to the DPJ’s missteps in power. After record-high turnouts in 2005 and 2009, Abe won an election in 2012 that saw turnout fall to a postwar low of just over 59 percent. The LDP gained an enormous majority despite receiving several million fewer votes than it did in its 2009 defeat. Turnout would plummet even further, to around 53 percent, in the December 2014 general election and would remain at the same level during Abe’s last general election victory in October 2017. A similar trend was evident in Abe’s three victories in national elections to determine the composition of the upper house of the National Diet, the Japanese parliament; turnout fell below 50 percent for only the second time ever in 2019. In short, the victories that were indispensable for Abe’s durability depended on a significant share of the electorate staying home. The public may not have loved Abe—polls regularly showed the plurality of his voters accounted for their vote by insisting that “there was no alternative” rather than by endorsing Abe’s policies—but they were not sufficiently dissatisfied with Abe or drawn to the opposition to turn him out of office.

POLITICAL NOUS

But Abe also deserves credit for his longevity. He learned important lessons from his failed first premiership. He had bungled key personnel decisions, clinging to gaffe-prone ministers even as they pulled down his approval ratings and filling his staff with inexperienced advisers who quickly fell out among themselves. In his second go-round, he used cabinet posts to co-opt LDP rivals and encouraged scandal-tainted cabinet ministers to resign, thereby preventing embarrassing gaffes from clouding his government’s agenda. He reserved key advisory posts in the prime minister’s office for shrewd veterans, including Suga, his chief cabinet secretary for his entire second premiership, who ensured that elite bureaucrats would not sabotage Abe’s agenda.

Another major lesson Abe learned from his disastrous first government was the importance of prioritizing the economic issues that mattered most to voters. During his first premiership, he had entirely misread the public mood, offering little to ease concerns about economic growth and inequality. He then botched the response to reports that pension records had gone missing, doing little to reassure an aging society that retirement savings were safe. The economic policy experiment of Abenomics, launched as soon as Abe returned in 2012, stemmed from his realization that he would not get another chance if he could not provide credible solutions to Japan’s economic challenges. While Abe’s attention to economic policy fluctuated, he never lost sight of the fact that to survive, he had to deliver tangible results to the Japanese people. His economic policy record was not unblemished. No decision may have been as important as his early determination to pressure the Bank of Japan to embrace a two percent inflation target and adopt the policies needed to pursue it, which helped create the conditions for stronger exports, corporate profits, and employment. But his unprecedented involvement in the wage-setting process failed to yield meaningful increases in real incomes. Meanwhile, his commitment to pursue fiscal balance in the medium term led to consumption tax hikes in 2014 and 2019 that further squeezed household spending and meant that Japan was in recession even before the coronavirus pandemic. But despite these mixed results, Abenomics served as a persistent reminder that the prime minister took economic challenges very seriously.

Abe also learned, crucially, to pick his battles. He never entirely abandoned long-cherished political goals such as revising Japan’s constitution or strengthening Japan’s armed forces. But he also understood when he could risk pursuing a controversial policy such as reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan to come to the aid of allied forces or bringing Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership despite opposition within the ranks of his own party. For most of his post-2012 tenure, he avoided the self-inflicted wounds that had doomed his first premiership.

A TRICKY INHERITANCE

Political stability, once achieved, became self-sustaining. Abe’s economic policies helped deliver the second-longest stretch of growth Japan had enjoyed since 1945. His commitment to globe-trotting diplomacy—he took 81 foreign trips during his second tenure—strengthened relations with key partners across what came to be known as the “Indo-Pacific,” carved out a role for Japan as a leader in global trade integration, and improved U.S.-Japanese ties across two very different U.S. administrations. The regional and global instability of recent years only strengthened Abe’s hand; the Japanese public seemed inclined to stick with their prime minister as Japan’s neighborhood appeared to become more dangerous.

Suga speaking after his confirmation as prime minister of Japan in Tokyo, Japan, September 2020
Suga speaking after his confirmation as Japanese prime minister in Tokyo, Japan, September 2020
Carl Court / Reuters

Suga should benefit from the fact that Japanese voters do not appear hungry for change. Abe’s approval ratings rose after he announced his resignation; public support for Suga—who has promised continuity and united most of the LDP behind his candidacy—also surged. As recently as July, support for Suga to succeed Abe was in the low single digits. Now, at the outset of his administration, Suga’s approval ratings are averaging nearly 70 percent, making his new premiership among Japan’s most popular ever. Many cite a sense of stability as a reason for backing the new prime minister.

Despite the public’s desire for political stability, however, Suga does not share Abe’s luck. Japan’s economy just suffered its worst quarter since World War II, and it had been in recession even before the pandemic. COVID-19 will continue to constrain demand at home and abroad for months if not for years. Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its pressure on Australia and other countries that have criticized China’s handling of COVID-19, and its increased presence in the East China and South China Seas have entirely undone Abe’s pursuit of a rapprochement with China. If U.S. President Donald Trump is reelected, Suga will face the unenviable task of negotiating financial support for U.S. forces in Japan with an administration that is reportedly demanding a sharp increase in Japan’s contribution. Any of these challenges could mean a swift exit if mishandled. It will take all of Suga’s political acumen—the well-honed instincts that brought the son of a strawberry farmer from service as a lowly secretary to the heights of power—to preserve the stability that was Abe’s greatest legacy.

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