Updated at 12:54 p.m. ET on July 8, 2022
The Japan That Can Say No was the title of a once-famous book by a once-rising Japanese politician.
Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister who was assassinated earlier today, bequeaths a much prouder legacy: a Japan that can—and does—say yes.
Abe was more than the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese democratic history. Although he left office in 2020, he remained the head of the largest faction in the National Diet (Japan’s parliament), and thus the most powerful figure in Japanese politics, even without any formal title.
Abe is often described as a nationalist. He deserves to be remembered instead as one of the great internationalists of his era, the leading architect of collective security in the Indo-Pacific region. Throughout four U.S. presidencies—those of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—Abe sought to secure Japan’s position against China by building alliances and institutions.
On the very day of Abe’s assassination, Japanese naval forces were participating in the largest military exercise ever staged in the Pacific Ocean, known as RIMPAC 2022. Vessels from the United States, India, and Australia have participated in such training exercises with Japanese vessels since the biennial RIMPAC series commenced, in 2010. This year, ships from two South American nations long courted by China, Chile and Ecuador, are also taking part. They are joined by vessels from South Korea, which has a history of touchy relations with Japan; Singapore; and Sri Lanka, where China has tried to gain control of port facilities. Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, is represented, as is faraway Israel. The NATO members Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are participating too—making up, with others, a total of 26 nations.
Abe laid the foundation for all of this by conjuring into being the famous “Quad,” or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, in 2007, during his first prime ministership. Abe did something that until then would have been considered very un-Japanese: He took the diplomatic lead. Recognizing China’s more belligerent turn earlier than almost anyone else, Abe enticed India into a formal security relationship with Japan—a first. He succeeded in gaining access to the Washington, D.C., security establishment, which was then preoccupied with the war in Iraq. He skillfully navigated the ambivalence in Australian attitudes toward China, which is a major customer for Australian products.
Through it all, Abe consistently advanced a vision of the Pacific region that was safe for democracy. He pressed Australia to sell uranium to India for India’s civilian nuclear program. He insisted that Taiwan was a crucial security interest for democratic nations in the Indo-Pacific. He championed an internationalist view of Japan’s interests, as part of a collective alliance with other democracies.
Abe overcame one obstacle after another. He overcame Japan’s predisposition to neutrality, which involved confronting political opponents who turned a need to atone for past Japanese war crimes into arguments against present-day military cooperation with Japan’s former victims. He overcame pro-Chinese attitudes on the Australian left that caused Australia to drop out of the Quad in 2008 under the China-leaning leadership of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, by facilitating its return under new leadership after 2010. Abe even cracked the code of Donald Trump’s Washington, arriving at Trump Tower in November 2016 for an early meeting with the president-elect at the same time as his government was negotiating business benefits for Trump’s daughter Ivanka—diplomacy with the U.S. during the Trump era was not for the squeamish, another thing Abe recognized earlier than most.
Now Abe is gone, murdered in an act of violence that has shocked his peaceful country. He leaves behind successors committed to his policies and expecting a big victory for his party in elections this Sunday for the upper house of the Diet. Americans, too, are safer and stronger thanks to Abe’s contributions to peace and freedom.
This article originally misstated the first name of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.