Abe Shinzō in His Own Words: A Memoir of Japan’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister


A recently published book offers a candid take on the triumphs and trials of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Based on multiple interviews, it shines a light on the mind of Japan’s longest serving premier.

Fending off the Ministry of Finance

Between his two stints as prime minister, Abe Shinzō held power for a record 3,188 days. During that time, he undertook such challenges as cutting through the intransigence of major government agencies, boosting Japan’s flagging economy, and managing relationships with the world’s major powers, efforts that won him both loyalists and detractors. Abe Shinzō kaikoroku (Abe Shinzō: A Memoir), a recently published work based on multiple interviews with the politician after he stepped down as prime minister in September 2020, provides an intimate glimpse into Abe’s fighting disposition and other insights from his time in power.

Abe frequently found himself at odds with bureaucrats at Japan’s different government agencies, and the memoir is full of fascinating episodes. For instance, as the COVID-19 pandemic was kicking into full swing in 2020, Abe describes telling officials that he was concerned about inadequacies in Japan’s testing approach. Abe recounts:

“At the time, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare was reluctant to increase COVID-19 PCR testing. I asked ministry officials why they couldn’t scale-up testing through public institutions the way private companies were already doing. I was shocked when one official answered that increasing testing would only lead to an increase in positive cases. I never shouted at bureaucrats, but on this occasion my words were harsh. The officials didn’t speak back to me, but I could feel they were thinking, ‘What is this amateur on about?’”

Japan’s Ministry of Finance has traditionally been seen as the most powerful government agency and was often Abe’s foil. One such time was when Abe’s cabinet twice postponed an increase in the consumption tax rate from 8% to 10%. Abe recounts that ministry officials wanted a tax hike at the earliest stage possible and plotted to use Abe’s predecessor as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, Tanigaki Sadakazu, to criticize the prime minister and, if necessary, bring him down. Abe declares that “they wouldn’t have hesitated to topple the government simply for the sake of their own ministry’s interests. But Tanigaki refused to go along with their plans.”

On the controversy surrounding the sale of state-owned land to educational organization Moritomo Gakuen, which greatly harmed the credibility of his administration in the public’s eye, Abe does not rule out the scandal ultimately being “a ploy by the Ministry of Finance” to undercut his administration. Abe’s distrust of the ministry resonates in his assertion that “the Ministry of Finance must have known from the beginning that there were serious problems with the Moritomo land deal. But no one gave me any documentation such as negotiation records. I only found out about the issue through media reports.”

Abe on the World Stage

Abe visited scores of countries and regions while prime minister and held numerous meetings with foreign leaders. In the book, he candidly shares his thoughts on “Abe Diplomacy” and the impression of many of the world’s leaders.

On US President Barack Obama, Abe says: “We only talked about business. If I made a joke, he would immediately return to the main topic. He didn’t engage in small talk. His background is as a lawyer, and he is very detailed about his work. Frankly, it was hard to establish a friendly relationship with him.”

Regarding President Obama’s 2016 visit to Hiroshima, he notes how the American side tried to set up a reciprocal visit by Abe to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also approached the prime minister about the possibility of twin visits. However, Abe opposed directly linking the two:

“The attack on Pearl Harbor, whether declared or not, was part of a battle between militaries and the place itself was a strategic military target. Hiroshima, on the other hand, was an indiscriminate attack on civilians, not on military personnel. So, I told the foreign ministry that if Obama came to Hiroshima, then we would later plan a separate visit to Pearl Harbor. The United States understood my position.”

Although Abe struggled in his relationship with Obama, he became close friends with his successor, Donald Trump. In the book, he reveals that they even had hour-long phone calls and provides important insight into Trump’s thinking:

“I think one reason people were wary of Trump is because they view him as impulsive when it comes the use of the military and force in international relations. But it’s actually quite the opposite. Trump is a businessman at heart. He’s cautious about anything that costs money and thinks about diplomacy and security through an economic lens. For example, he would say, ‘The joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea are a huge waste of money. We should stop them.’

Now, if, for example, [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un knew that Trump was in fact reluctant to take military action, we may not have been able to exert diplomatic pressure. Together with Trump’s own national security team, we were desperate to keep his true nature hidden for this reason.”

A Stark View of Putin

Abe desired to make progress on Japan’s Northern Territories dispute with Russia and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin 27 times while in office. He notes that although Putin appears cold, he is surprisingly friendly in person.

Cognizant of domestic criticism that he had “abandoned the position of returning the four islands all at once” in his discussions with Putin, Abe pushes back, saying that “insisting on the return of all islands at once is no different from saying that we do not want the Northern Territories back at all.”

On Putin’s ambitions, Abe notes:

“His desire is the revival of the Russian Empire and power. He views former President Mikhail Gorbachev as a failure for leading the Soviet Union to collapse. Putin’s attitude was ‘Why has our country made so many concessions and given away so much territory?’ Ukraine’s independence was something he couldn’t accept. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was for Putin a symbol of the restoration of Russian power.”

Abe’s perception of Chinese President Xi Jinping is one of a committed realist. He notes that if Xi had been born in the United States, he would not have joined a communist party, but rather a mainstream political party. In his view, Xi ultimately joined the Chinese Communist Party to accumulate political power, not because of ideological beliefs.

Abe is particularly critical of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During the Moon administration, relations with Japan cooled considerably following a South Korean Supreme Court case involving wartime conscription of Korean workers. Abe declares: “President Moon knew that the decision of the Supreme Court was a violation of international law. However, he wanted to use the ruling for domestic purposes and pursue an anti-Japanese line. President Moon made a performance in front of me and said he was troubled by the judicial decision and that he would take care of it. However, nothing was done, and relations got worse. He knew what he was doing was wrong.”

Abe does not mince words when putting forward his view that Japan’s history-based diplomacy is weak. “The foreign ministry only fought meekly over historical issues. Their attitude was that these would fade away over time. However, that would only make the current understanding established. That’s why my administration adopted a more proactive stance to issues of historical awareness.”

Abe’s memoir offers a frank recounting of his experiences during his time in office even as it adds fuel to many of the controversies that dogged his administration. Following the book’s release, a former senior official at the Ministry of Finance, which came in for much criticism in the work, pushed back against Abe’s claims. Furthermore, the memoir can be expected to cause a stir if translated into foreign languages and read widely beyond Japan’s shores. However, Abe in his political career was not known to shy away from a fight. In the memoir, he has left his testimony to posterity, and stands as an important source on the political and diplomatic history of Japan.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Abe Shinzō kaikoroku. Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha.)

Abe Shinzō kaikoroku

By Abe Shinzō
Published by Chūō Kōron Shinsha in February 2023
ISBN: 978-4-12-005634-5

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