Abe Shinzō is seen today through many lenses: as the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Japan; as a pragmatic leader with a consistent policy vision and a commitment to the art of statecraft; as a nationalist whose strong historical revisionist beliefs led him to make inflammatory moves that opened old wounds and antagonized Japan’s neighbors. In his new biography, The Iconoclast: Shinzō Abe and the New Japan (Hurst, 2020), Tobias Harris presents a painstakingly researched, engagingly written, and fair assessment of Abe’s political career and legacy.
Beginning with Abe’s familial connection to the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, Harris show how the political dynasty linking Abe to his father Abe Shintarō and his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke played significant—and often controversial—roles in the political history of Japan dating back to the 1930s. Readers will witness Abe’s gradual rise through the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party and his complex relationships with leading figures in both Japanese and US political circles. Harris skillfully analyzes the failure of Abe’s first premiership, the lessons he learned during his time in the political wilderness, and his path to reelection in 2012, which marked the beginning of his historic second administration.
Harris’s balanced discussion of the Abe administration’s accomplishments and failures leaves no stone unturned, providing insight into everything from the Abenomics program and Abe’s efforts to revise the postwar constitution to an insider’s view of his diplomatic engagement with the Obama and Trump administrations and his attempts to improve Japan’s international relations. Readers predisposed to dislike Abe because of his revisionist perspective on Japanese history will be challenged to see him in a wider context, and Harris raises poignant questions about Abe’s missed opportunities for his champions to consider.
Steve Wills is Associate Professor of History at Nebraska Wesleyan University and one of the hosts of the New Books in East Asian Studies series.