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(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Shinzo Abe is Japan’s Richard Nixon (pre-Watergate, that is). Like Nixon, written off after his loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 US presidential election, he was a failed politician who returned stronger than before. Also like Nixon, he has shaken his country out of its apathy and proved to be the most strategic thinker of his generation. He has given Japan its first clear economic and foreign policy since perhaps the 1980s, in the process becoming its most important leader in decades.

Abe (pronounced “Ah-bay”) is the grandson of a 1950s-era prime minister who was charged with war crimes after the Second World War. He has been criticised throughout his career for being a dangerous nationalist, one who does not believe that Japan did anything wrong during the war, and who seeks to overturn the post-war constitution which for seven decades has kept Japan a pacifist nation. Some of Abe’s statements have given credence to these criticisms, and actions like his visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are commemorated, are seen as direct insults to the sensitivities of Japan’s wartime victims in Asia.

When Abe returned to power in December 2012, Japan had suffered through a string of one-year premierships dating back, ironically, to Abe’s own resignation in 2007. The country was adrift, politically paralysed, and still recovering from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which produced the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The cynicism of the Japanese electorate resulted in huge swings between the country’s two main political parties.

Abe won the election in 2012 in large part because of his disciplined focus on the economy. Ever since the Japanese bubble burst in 1990, the country had become the great lost hope, enduring nearly a quarter of a century of economic stagnation and recession, even though it remained the world’s third-largest economy.

Abe made a splash with the first comprehensive economic reform plan in memory. Soon dubbed “Abenomics”, the plan famously comprised the so-called “three arrows”: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reform. After fits and starts, the plan has been implemented, and even though there remain calls for bolder and more wide-ranging structural reform, Abe has pushed through a set of initiatives that should begin to reshape the economy over the next decade. Despite doubts about the ultimate impact of the reforms, and particular worries about the Bank of Japan recently adopting negative interest rates, both domestic and foreign business leaders are optimistic about the economy’s future.

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