Asian Survey: “Japan in 2020: COVID-19 and the End of the Abe Era”

JAPAN’S LEADERS BEGAN 2020 full of hope and expectation, and with lofty ambitions. As then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (2020a) proclaimed at his New Year’s press conference, “Together with the Japanese people, I will make this historic year . . . a year for carving out a new era for Japan.” Indeed, 2020 was not just any year. Perhaps more than any other in recent memory, the Japanese public (and Abe himself) had long anticipated that 2020 would be one for the history books. In 2013, Japan had been awarded the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The following January, Abe predicted in a major policy speech that in 2020 Japan would “be newly reborn,” just as, he argued, it had been in 1964, the last time Tokyo hosted a Summer Olympics, just 19 years after Japan’s defeat in World War II (Asahi Shimbun 2014). In 2017, not only was it announced that 2020 would also be the first full year of Japan’s new Reiwa imperial era, but also Abe began repeatedly pledging that he would make it the year that Japan finally revised its (never-amended) US-drafted 1947 constitution—a deeply held ambition central to Abe’s personal and political legacy and a key pillar of the 1955 founding charter of his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

But COVID-19 had other plans for Japan in 2020.

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