Reuters
Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) – In 1883 German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of a character he called “the last man”. The opposite of his ideal “Ubermensch”, last men are so enervated and addicted to comfort, they lose their ability to dream and their will to compete. To Japanese conservatives, Nietzsche might have been describing Japan during the lost decades that followed the bursting of its financial bubble in the early 1990s: a pacifist, embarrassed, ageing irrelevance overshadowed by rising China. Until Shinzo Abe came along.

In “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan” Tobias Harris delivers an engaging review of the extraordinary career of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He was the heir to a conservative political dynasty, he dragged the country out of deflation, partially remilitarised it, and reconfigured the state in the process. Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence who briefly served as private secretary to Japanese politician Keiichiro Asao, delivers a positive, nuanced assessment. However, readers less grounded in Japan’s political history might benefit from some background reading before wading in. (Who, exactly, were the “right-wing socialists”?)

Abe, who announced his retirement for health reasons in August, reinforced Tokyo’s position as Washington’s premier ally in Asia, and managed the relationship with a semi-hostile Donald Trump surprisingly well. When the White House abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Abe took the lead, ratifying a deal that lowered trade barriers between major economies in Asia and the Americas. He reinforced Japan’s position as a source of investment and aid to poorer neighbours as an alternative to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.

Abe has handed the reins to Yoshihide Suga, a long-time ally who helped craft the combination of unorthodox monetary policy, fiscal stimulus and reform that came to be known as Abenomics. The new prime minister has