Abe is out. What’s next for Japan?

photograph of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, announced last Friday that he would be stepping down due to ongoing health issues. His abrupt departure comes as the world's third largest economy finally regained what Abe perceived to be its rightful place in global affairs.

Whoever assumes the top job now will face tough challenges on both the foreign and domestic fronts. Here are the main issues.


Japan-US relations. Abe came into power for the second time in 2012 after a brief first term (2006-2007) with ambitious designs on a foreign policy that supports, but is not beholden to, the military alliance with the US.

In a recent interview with GZERO Media, Japanese journalist Junko Tanaka explained that Abe's pragmatic approach to Japan-US relations managed to keep ties stable even with Donald Trump in the White House. Abe reacted to Trump's 2016 election by quickly cultivating a personal relationship with him that has paid off handsomely for Abe: Japan has been spared the humiliation other countries suffered from the US president who often questions the merit of the US' military arrangements with allies such as South Korea and NATO.

China. Unlike many of his contemporaries — like for example, the UK's Boris Johnson, who first ignited Trump's wrath by backing China on Huawei 5G and then flip-flopped to appease the US — Abe was able to stay close to the US without provoking China. He embraced rules-based multilateralism to counter Beijing's increasingly aggressive foreign policy under Xi Jinping, but Tokyo stood its ground when China asserted its claim over the Senkaku (Daioyu) islands, and remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (which excludes China, and the US walked away from under Trump)… while refusing to join the US-led condemnation of China's new security law for Hong Kong.

Japan's next prime minister will have to figure out how to follow Abe's playbook and keep walking the tightrope between Washington and Beijing. Maintaining close ties with Washington will likely be a priority no matter who wins the November election, but China will be a harder sell given that Abe's successor will lack his predecessor's stature when dealing with Xi, who may see in the power vacuum as an opening to become tougher on Japan.

Constitutional reform. Another existential decision for the future Japanese leader will be whether to follow through on Abe's quest to change the 1946 constitution — largely drafted by Washington during the post-war US occupation of Japan — to allow Japan to deploy its own defense forces abroad. Abe, an unabashed yet soft-spoken Japanese nationalist, spent much of his political capital trying to unshackle Japan from its self-imposed constitutional limits, but ultimately he was unable to muster sufficient support.

Economic stagnation. From the start, Abe set out to transform the Japanese economy. But eight years on, the results are mixed. Some of the ambitious economic reforms of so-called "Abenomics" — a three-pronged approach of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms to revitalize the Japanese economy after a two-decade slump — helped lift Japan from years of deflation, but growth remains sluggish.

Abe's successor has a tough job ahead on the economy: structural reforms are still lacking to address an aging population, with too many retirees and not enough women in the workplace. Female labor participation, which Abe vowed to increase to 30 percent by 2030, is now stuck at a dismal 8.7 percent in managerial positions.

COVID-19. Abe has also struggled with the response to the coronavirus. Popular support for his handling of the pandemic was the lowest among 23 world leaders in a recent poll, with many Japanese complaining that Abe waited too long to impose a lockdown. The economy is in dire straits, and it's still unclear whether the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games — which Japan has already spent at least $12.6 billion on, and desperately needs to welcome back foreign investment and tourists — will be held next summer.

Finally, Abe's cabinet has been rocked in recent years by a series of scandals that have slowly but surely chipped away at his reputation, and could jeopardize the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's odds of securing a sufficient majority in Japan's next legislative election.

Bottom line. Shinzo Abe's legacy leaves a mixed record, and serious challenges ahead for his replacement. Will Japan's next leader deliver where Abe could not?

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Iranians head to the polls on Friday to vote for president, and it appears a foregone conclusion that hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, the nation's top judge, will win.

Outsiders, and many Iranians, roll their eyes at the predictability of this vote. Iran's Guardian Council, a dozen clerics and judges who answer only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has cleared the field for Raisi by ruling all of his credible challengers ineligible. The fix is in, and Iranians are now preparing for a moment when anti-reform conservatives, those who oppose social change inside Iran and deeper engagement with the West, will for the first time ever control the country's presidency, parliament, courts, and much of the media.

But simmering beneath the cynicism and predictability of this event is a deepening anxiety over Iran's future as it enters a potentially momentous period in the Islamic Republic's 42-year history. The Supreme Leader, in power for 32 years, is now 82 years old. Very few people know the true state of his health. Even if he outlives Raisi's presidency, which could last four or eight years, preparations for a historic, uncertain, and potentially dangerous leadership transition will intensify soon.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

After Biden's first visit, do his European allies feel that America is back?

I think they do. Wasn't particularly surprising, we've heard that message before. But now it was, sort of more concrete issues. I'm not certain there was, sort of major, major, major progress. But there was the beginning of a dialogue on trade and technology issues with Europe, clearly on security issues with NATO, and quite a number of other issues with G7, and general satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting with Putin. So, altogether good.

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Listen: Former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder weighs in on US President Joe Biden's first trip abroad, which included a very important first stop at the G7 summit in the United Kingdom, and the way forward for the US and its closest friends. Did he convince allies that "America is back" and ready to resume its leadership role in global affairs? And if so, does it even matter if Americans still need to be convinced that US engagement in the world is vital? Daalder speaks with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent policy developments:

With the Supreme Court's recent decision, is the Affordable Care Act here to stay?

Yes, this was the Court's third ruling on the Affordable Care Act upholding its constitutionality. This challenge was brought by Republican attorneys general who argued that the repeal of the individual mandate tax undermined the court's previous justification for allowing the law to stand. They were unsuccessful, yet again. And the political salience of the Affordable Care Act has really diminished in the last several years, with Republicans moving on to fight other issues and the Court signaling very strongly they don't want to get involved in overturning this piece of legislation. The Affordable Care Act will be here at least until Congress wants to legislate on it again.

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Iranians head to the polls on June 18, in what's widely perceived to be a foregone outcome. Analysts predict that popular disillusionment with Iran's political class will make this one of the lowest turnout elections in Iran's post-revolution history. According to one poll taken by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, as few as 42 percent of the eligible voting population is expected to show up. We take a look at contemporary Iran's demographics, and how this year's vote turnout might compare to previous elections.

Latin America needs vaccines: The World Health Organization has called on the G7 countries that pledged to donate a billion COVID vaccine doses to the developing world to prioritize Latin America, with WHO officials pointing to the fact that out of the top 10 countries with the highest COVID death tolls per capita over the past week, nine are in Latin America, where many health systems are overstretched and vaccines are scarce. This call comes as Latin America's COVID death toll has surpassed 1 million. Cases and deaths are soaring in Argentina and Colombia, for instance, while Brazil has fully vaccinated just 11 percent of its population despite recording the world's second highest death toll. Even Chile, which has carried out Latin America's most successful vaccination campaign to date, has been forced to delay reopening due to a recent surge in infections among unvaccinated younger people. The WHO says prioritizing the region for vaccine donations makes sense in order to stop large sustained outbreaks that may spur potentially more infectious COVID variants that'll cross borders and wreak havoc in populous states. Most of the donated shots will be distributed through the COVAX facility, which is a problem for countries like Venezuela, shut out from COVAX because of payment problems.

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3: China has launched three astronauts into orbit in its first space mission since 2016. The astronauts will spend three months aboard the country's new space station, demonstrating China's resolve to become a space power following successful earlier missions to collect soil samples on the Moon and land a wheeled robot on Mars.

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