In 1993 Shinzo Abe won a seat in the lower house of the Diet (parliament) and later held a series of government posts. He garnered much support for his tough stance toward North Korea, especially after that country revealed in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s. Abe, who was then deputy chief cabinet secretary, oversaw the subsequent negotiations. In 2003 he was named secretary general of the LDP. Due to LDP term limits, prime minister and LDP leader Junichiro Koizumi was forced to leave office in 2006, and he was succeeded in both posts by Abe. Abe became the country’s first prime minister to have been born after World War II and its youngest since the war.
A conservative, Abe sought to strengthen ties with the United States and pursue a more assertiveforeign policy. Abe supported United Nations sanctions against North Korea following that country’s nuclear test and imposed a set of unilateral sanctions on North Korea that included a ban on all visits to Japanese ports by North Korean vessels. He also pledged to revise the country’s postwar constitution, which placed severe restrictions on its military. In domestic affairs, Abe promised to shore up the country’s pension and health insurance systems. However, his government soon became embroiled in a series of public gaffes and financial scandals. In addition, the administration drew criticism for its slow response to the discovery that for a decade the government had been mishandling the pension records of millions of citizens. In July 2007 the LDP lost its majority in the upper house to a coalition led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and in September Abe announced that he was resigning. He was succeeded by Yasuo Fukuda.
Second term and “Abenomics”
Abe retained his seat in the lower house of the Diet but for several years remained quiet politically, especially after a DPJ-headed coalition took control of the government in 2009. That changed, however, when he was again elected leader of the LDP in September 2012. One of his first acts was to pay a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s military dead that includes individuals convicted of war crimes during World War II. That action precipitated loud protests from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and he provoked further controversy over his views on the sovereignty of islands in the Pacific that were disputed between China and Japan, as well as for his stance favouring revision of the pacifism clause in the Japanese constitution. Nonetheless, the LDP won a landslide victory in lower-house elections on December 16, 2012. On December 26 the new LDP majority in the chamber—bolstered by the members of the party’s coalition partner, New Kōmeitō—overwhelmingly approved Abe as prime minister. He replaced the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda, who resigned from office that day.
Abe quickly launched an ambitious economic program intended to stimulate the long-moribund Japanese economy and help speed the recovery of the northeastern Honshu (Tōhoku) region devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The program, quickly dubbed “Abenomics,” included measures such as raising the inflation rate, allowing the value of the yen to fall against the U.S. dollar and other foreign currencies, and increasing the money supply and government spending on major public works projects. The Abe government received a big political boost in the July 2013 elections to the upper house of the Diet, when candidates from the LDP and its New Kōmeitō allies won enough seats to guarantee them a majority in that chamber.
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Abe’s economic program seemed to be working initially, with strong growth in 2013 and the first half of 2014 and a drop in the unemployment rate. However, the second of a three-step increase in the national consumption (sales) tax (enacted in 2012 by the DPJ-led government) in April 2014 contributed to a dramatic drop in Japan’s economy during the rest of the year. By autumn the country had fallen into recession, and Abe’s approval rating was plummeting. He decided to dissolve the lower house and call for snap parliamentary elections, which were held on December 14, 2014. Abe and the LDP won by a large margin, ensuring that he would retain the prime minister’s office. Voters, however, expressed little enthusiasm for the polling and turned out in record low numbers.
Following the LDP’s strong electoral win, the Abe administration actively pursued revision of the Japanese constitution. In 2014 the cabinet had approved a reinterpretation of the so-called peace clause of the constitution, which paved the way for it to endorse bills in May 2015 that would make it easier for Japan to use military force if the country were attacked or threatened. Those bills subsequently were passed by the lower house in July and the upper house in September. Popular opposition to the measures was strong, however, with former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama joining the protesters. Abe’s government also faced controversy over the proposed new stadium in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games. The venue’s design, by architect Zaha Hadid, initially had been accepted but in 2015 was rejected amid concerns over ballooning construction costs. Abe’s position in the LDP remained strong, however, and in September 2015 he was elected without opposition to another term as party president.
Although Abe’s personal approval rating had consistently remained below 50 percent since December 2014, the LDP won a landslide victory in the July 2016 elections for the upper house of the Diet. The result gave the LDP and New Kōmeitō supermajorities in both the upper and lower houses, paving the way for constitutional changes that Abe had long advocated. Buoying the LDP was the almost complete collapse of the opposition DPJ, which struggled to present any credible alternatives to Abenomics. A string of scandals in early 2017 pushed Abe’s popularity to record lows, but its rebound in late summer compelled him to call snap elections for the lower house in an attempt to strengthen his already formidable majority there. The DPJ, which had rebranded itself as the Democratic Party after merging with the Japan Innovation Party in 2016, effectively voted itself out of existence in September 2017. DPJ lawmakers who had planned to contest the October 2017 election were told to forsake their party affiliation and apply for membership in the Party of Hope, an upstart reform party launched by Tokyo governor and former LDP member Yuriko Koike.
Preelection polling put the Party of Hope far behind the incumbent LDP coalition, and Koike splintered the opposition further when she introduced a litmus test that excluded liberal candidates. Koike ultimately declined to run for a seat in the lower house, and the liberal opposition broke away from the Party of Hope to form the Constitutional Democratic Party. Abe’s political instincts proved to be correct. Although he remained personally unpopular, the opposition was in disarray, and the 2017 elections saw the LDP return commanding majorities to the upper and lower houses of the Diet. Many expected Abe to move forward with his long-promised revision to the constitution, but widespread public disapproval led to the measure being postponed indefinitely.
Abe became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November 2019, when his time in office eclipsed that of Kōshaku Katsura Tarō, who had served three nonconsecutive terms in the early 20th century. In August 2020 Abe announced that he would resign as prime minister because of a recurrence of ulcerative colitis, although he remained in office in a caretaker capacity pending the selection of a successor. On September 14, 2020, Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, was chosen as the new leader of the LDP, and he became prime minister two days later.
While delivering a campaign speech for a colleague on July 8, 2022, Abe was assassinated. A 41-year-old man with a homemade gun was arrested at the scene, and police claimed that he later confessed. According to some news outlets, the assailant was upset that his mother was bankrupt after donating to a religious group that had alleged ties to Abe.