Abe recognised the usefulness of India in the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese, and Abe, really pushed for India, including with the Quad: Grant Newsham.


In this edition of Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines, we speak with Grant Newsham, a retired United States Marine Corps Colonel, about the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Newsham was the Marine Attaché in Tokyo and the first Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Self-Defence Forces. In the latter role he helped create Japan’s “Marine Corps”.
Q: How did Shinzo Abe change Japan, and the world?
A: There have been around twenty Japanese Prime Ministers since Yasuhiro Nakasone was Prime Minister from 1982 to 1987. Nakasone was the last one you would call a statesman. Since then the only one who deserved that title was Shinzo Abe.
Abe managed to do the almost impossible. He shifted Japan’s basic approach to foreign affairs and defence. Before him, the widespread approach was one of mindless pacifism—pretending the country faced no threats and didn’t have to defend itself, and Japan had little influence regionally or globally—other than what its money could buy temporarily.
Abe turned that around to where today the common wisdom is that Japan is in a dangerous neighbourhood, needs to beef up alliances with the US and others, and is an important power. That was unthinkable before Abe. Anyone trying and saying what he did would have been called a warmonger looking to redo World War II.
Q: What were some of the changes he made?
A: In the decade before he took office took office in 2012, the defence budget was cut year after year. After, it was increased year after year.
He got the Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF) taken more seriously. He was convinced the JSDF had a role to play in defending the nation. And a military was for fighting, if needed.
He had the JSDF go out in the region and do exercises, including with other countries. That would have been unthinkable a few years before.
He got laws reinterpreted for collective self-defence, which meant Japan could support the Americans and potentially were able to support other friendly countries.
He also had the defence guidelines with the US redone to make Japan a more useful ally to the Americans.
He also really wanted to get the Constitution changed to get JSDF recognised as a normal military. He didn’t achieve that, but the current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida might try to get it done after the next election.
Internationally, he saw Japan’s role in the region and the world differently than all others, and he travelled around the world and spoke well about Japan and what its interests are at home and abroad. He also knew enough to keep his mouth shut about some of his views.
He patiently tried to make friends with South Korea, and saw Taiwan as a nation essential to Japan’s defence. And he also almost sold submarines to the Australians, and that would have been a strategic earthquake in a good sense, but the Australian administration of Malcolm Turnbull went insane. Abe saw Japan’s interest in a global sense.
During his administration, there was a clear recognition that Japan’s economic strength was something to capitalise on. You saw it when Abe kept the idea of the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive even when the United States backed off. That showed leadership.
At the same time, he also did a very good job of engaging with Obama and Trump—and those weren’t only ones he did well with.
In terms of diplomacy he made a lot of progress for Japan. He kept the US alliance and made it even stronger. He built other alliances and spoke up for Taiwan. He increased defence spending—as much as he could (which wasn’t so much), and also increased defence capabilities—he was very strong on those points. And his comments about China were similarly strong.
It took political courage and a lot of effort to get it done. Turning all that around was hard and slow—like turning around a cruise ship. But Abe did it—now even a lot of academia and media like Asashi Shimbun don’t complain much anymore.
His strategic vision was impressive. He was a force—you take him out and where is that voice? I can imagine they are launching some toasts in Beijing today. That’s how important he was.
Q: Did he face opposition?
A: I’ve seen some gleeful commentators talking about his killing. Abe was often called a right-winger, an extreme nationalist, he was none of those. At best you might call him a conservative. In the US many of his policies would be considered on the left, like national health care. He is pigeonholed by the foreign commentariat and media. It shows a real lack of understanding of Japan.

Grant Newsham

He always faced plenty of opposition. What he accomplished is even more impressive given that opposition. But in accomplishing all this he was really viciously hated by people within and outside his party, academia, media, some in the international community. The shooting is almost a predictable outcome from that real vitriolic hatred.
And, while he had plenty of enemies, he was also very influential among a large number of the body politic. He was much more popular than any Prime Minister I can remember.
Q: How did India fit into Shinzo Abe’s worldview?
A: If you visit Yasukuni shrine you’ll see the memorial to Justice Pal who wrote in favour of the Japanese defendants at the War Crimes trial after World War Two. Abe’s grandfather, Kishi, had been arrested by the Americans. Abe’s views of that era are very different than mine, and they did shape him.
Abe had real feelings for India and Indians. He saw India (other than the colonial administration) as having been aligned with Japan during World War II and tried to build on that. He saw the Japan and India relationship as historic and he worked to support it.
In modern times, Abe recognised the usefulness of India in the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese, and Abe, really pushed for India, including with the Quad. Bringing India into that dynamic is essential, and he worked hard on it.
The idea of the Quad really originated with him. Also the “security diamond” and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept. I think he had those ideas a long time before and, when he finally got the chance, he moved with it. Of course, he had people around him, but he deserves credit for all of these things.
Q: What happened after Mr Abe stepped down?
A: One thing did surprise me—I thought once he stepped down, Japan would lose momentum. In Japan politicians always just moved money around and didn’t really have much interest in foreign affairs. I thought Japan would lose focus again.
To my surprise that momentum and direction continued. And, even after leaving office, Mr Abe had been very clear spoken about the need for Japan to really improve its defence. And to help defend Taiwan. There’s that expression, Taiwan’s defence is Japan’s defence.
He’s also talked about Japan having access to nuclear weapons. American nuclear weapons ideally, but implicit in that is Japanese as well. Not everyone in Japan listened to him, but he was influential. And having him say those things is sort of like firing for effect. It was adding to the momentum that Japan has now.
I think the Kishida administration is going to keep it going. The advisors at a number of levels think a lot like Abe.
The real threat to Japan—i.e. from China—is one that is so widely accepted now it is almost common wisdom, from the general population to the military and political class and even the media—though there is still opposition, not least from the business community and hold-outs in the bureaucracy.
Q: How can Japan’s friends help now?
A: What would help now is if the Americans say what they need, clearly, to be able to work effectively with Japan against their common threat.
And for others, such as India, to be more with the Japanese, to make the military, economic, political relationship more concrete. Indians, if they have initiative and desire, could play a bigger role with the Japanese regardless of the Americans
Q: How will Japan, and the Kishida administration, respond?
A: This really is unusual. A shock to all Japanese. I think they will respond to Abe’s killing in a pretty good way, after they catch their breath. It will be a reminder of what is already known—that Japan is in a dangerous neighbourhood and does have enemies. And it may result in even more support for the sort of policies represented by Abe. That’s how it will be interpreted—it can have a bracing effect, to not lose focus. I’m optimistic Kishida’s administration could keep it going, that Abe’s ideas are going to continue via the Kishida administration.
He was a rare figure that doesn’t come along very often. He was immensely important. He will be missed.