The late former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, among the most influential politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) even after his resignation in 2020, extended his significant influence over matters of defence, security and foreign policy at home and abroad. His continuing thought leadership on defence issues generated a political status which almost paralleled that of factional rival and current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. His opportunistic strategizing that asserted his reformist ambitions for Japan’s defence posture and capabilities ranged from exercising direct policymaking influence within LDP processes and over Kishida, to leading public debate as an “influencer” in domestic media and international fora.
Abe’s foreign policy realism, which informed his desire to balance China by launching the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad framework, paved the way for Kishida to follow in his footsteps. Proactive lobbying on Abe’s part extended to issues of the intertwining of Japanese and Taiwanese security interests and enhancement of their relations, and the simultaneous deterrence of China with an independent and strategically unambiguous defence policy reliant on the bedrock of the Japan-US alliance. Post-resignation and posthumously, Abe moved Kishida, LDP policy platforms and public opinion on issues such as increasing defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, consideration of a ‘nuclear sharing’ arrangement with the United States and revision of the Japanese constitution.
While the independence of Kishida’s future defence policy positions remains to be seen, this paper reviews Abe’s tools of policy influence, his leadership of national debates on the issues that animated him, and the accompanying political and bureaucratic manoeuverings in the contentious area of Japanese security policymaking. The possibility for fulfilment of Abe’s ‘unfinished business’, including the normalisation of Japan’s security posture, and its defence and military roles, will ultimately be determined by its deteriorating security environment.