The outpouring of sympathy for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following his assassination on July 8 showed the enormous popularity he enjoyed across the world. The Japanese government acknowledged receiving more than 1,700 condolence messages from 259 countries, regions and institutions.
Abe became the defining face of Indo-Japan relations not merely for his enviable and well known equation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also for the way he focussed on India’s interests. Abe had gone on record in calling Modi his most dependable friend. While representing The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading news daily, I have had the chance to see in Kyoto and Ahmedabad the free and easy way in which the two leaders engaged with each other. The close ties between the two leaders helped bolster Indo-Japan ties to a special strategic and global partnership.
As Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister with nine years in office from 2006-07 and again from 2012-2020, Abe had a special bond with India. He was also the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2014 during the UPA regime. His contribution to India-Japan ties was richly recognised by the conferment upon him of the prestigious Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award in 2021. The Indian Government announced a day of State mourning and Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned the demise of his best friend in his personal blog.
Given Abe’s enormous contribution to lifting India Japan relations, his demise has come as a big blow at a time when the two countries are observing the 70th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations.
Dr Titli Basu, Associate Fellow at MP-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, says, “India lost its most ardent advocate in Japan with the abrupt end of the Abe phenomenon. As the leader of the Japan-India Association and Japan-India Parliamentary League, he kept India close to him even when out of office. Abe believed in Modi’s nation-building vision, with Japan offering state-of-the-art infrastructure across India, including the strategic peripheries of the North-East, massive investment, and developmental aid.’’
For a majority of Indians, Abe is justifiably synonymous with helping build the bullet train, the flagship project of India-Japan ties. He has left an unforgettable legacy by committing the ‘Shinkansen’ bullet train technology to India. Images of Abe participating in the 2017 foundation stone laying ceremony of the bullet train in Ahmedabad are equally fresh in the minds of people. In his address at the ceremony, Abe had expressed the hope that he would enjoy the beauty of India through the windows of the bullet train in next few years. It is tragic that Abe’s life was snatched a year before he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had envisioned the bullet train to fly on the tracks between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.
The 508-km high-speed rail network is estimated to cost Rs 1.1 lakh crore, including the purchase of 24 train sets, interest during construction and import duties. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is funding 81 per cent of the total project cost, through a loan.
Abe’s participation in the Ganga Aarti in the Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi’s constituency will also remain etched on public memory for times to come. In an article published in the online edition of Japan’s leading newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has credited the former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe with helping a largely narrow, bilateral economic relationship with India into a broad, comprehensive one that covered every field of national endeavour. This became “a pivotal for our two countries and the region’s security.’’
The article titled “My friend, Abe San’’ appeared in the Outsiders Section of the Japanese news daily on the day of Abe’s final journey. Modi paid glowing tribute to Shinzo Abe in the article and described him an outstanding leader of Japan, a towering global statesman and a great champion of India-Japan friendship. Modi recalled his first meeting in 2007 during his Japan visit as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. “Right from that first meeting, our friendship went beyond the trappings of office and the shackles of official protocol.”
Modi acknowledged that for Abe, the Indo-Japan relationship was one of the most consequential relationships for the people of our two countries and the world. “He was resolute in pursuing the civil nuclear agreement with India — a most difficult one for his country -– and decisive in offering the most generous terms for the High-Speed Rail in India. As in most important milestones in independent India’s journey, he ensured that Japan is there side by side as New India accelerates its growth.”
When Modi paid an official visit to Japan in September 2014 within four months of taking over as Prime Minister for the first time, the two sides agreed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”. At that time, Abe announced JPY 3.5 trillion investment over five years as part of Investment Promotion Partnership. This target has already been surpassed.
Prime Minister Modi has said that the Japanese are one of the most trusted investors in India and that India is committed to providing Japanese companies a favourable environment. During the flying visit of Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida in March this year for the 14th India Japan summit, the two sides concluded a roadmap for a roadmap for industrial competitiveness partnership.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, direct investment from Japan to India has been increased. Japan was the fourth largest investor for India in FY2020. The interest of Japanese private sector in India is rising. At present, some 1,455 Japanese companies are operating in India. Surely, the upswing in economic relations would not have been possible without Abe’s political will.
India’s former Ambassador to Japan, Deepa Wadhwa, in a recent interview to ANI said that Abe had a special connect with India. Ambassador Wadhwa said it was Abe who was the progenitor of the Indo-Pacific concept. It was in his address to the Indian Parliament that Abe used the term in his speech titled ‘Confluence of the two Seas’. He saw the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a continuum. “The term used for the region was Asia Pacific. The grouping APEC, which is basically the shores of the Pacific, excluded India. Though India wanted to be a part of APEC, we haven’t got membership. Shinzo Abe included India in this Indo-Pacific concept which is economically, strategically, geo-economically and geo-strategically important region of the world and made India an important pillar of that,” she added.
Referring to the Quad, she said that a lot of what we talk about today is because of Abe’s efforts. “When he first talked about the Quad security initiative involving the four pillars of democracy—Japan, India, Australia and the US, there were very few takers for it to begin with. The Chinese were upset. It took a while but now see where the Quad is. It has developed. He had the patience to see his ideas being realised into something concrete.’’
Professor Rajiv Ranjan who has been teaching Japanese History in the Department of East Asian Studies in Delhi University, says Abe was a very popular Prime Minister. Abe has been supporting amendments to the Constitution which is a very complex process. ‘’He had also been working on ensuring the rise of Japan while keeping the interests of the Japanese people. ‘’
In the 17-paragraph article in Yomiuri Shimbun, Modi extended heartfelt condolences on behalf of the people of India and his behalf to the people of Japan, especially to Smt Akie Abe and his family.
Modi said that he will always “cherish the singular honour of having been invited to his family home in Yamanashi prefecture, nestled among the foothills of Mt. Fuji.’’ Enumerating some memorable interactions with Abe, the Prime Minister mentioned their visit to Toji temple in Kyoto, train journey on the Shinkansen, the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, the Ganga Aarti in Kashi, and the elaborate tea ceremony in Tokyo.
Recalling his last meeting with Abe San during his visit in May this year, the PM said, “He had just taken over as the Chair of the Japan-India Association. He was his usual self-energetic, captivating, charismatic, and very witty. He had innovative ideas on how to further strengthen the India-Japan friendship. When I said goodbye to him that day, little did I imagine that it would be our final meeting.’’
Modi wrote, “Every meeting with Abe San was intellectually stimulating. He was always full of new ideas and invaluable insights on governance, economy, culture, foreign policy, and various other subjects. His counsel inspired me in my economic choices for Gujarat. Later on, it was my privilege to work with him to bring about an unprecedented transformation of the strategic partnership between India and Japan.’’
The Prime Minister said that the Quad, the ASEAN-led fora for an Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative, the India-Japan Development Cooperation in the Indo Pacific including Africa, and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure all benefitted from his contributions. “Long before others, he, in his seminal speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007, laid the ground for the emergence of the Indo-Pacific region as a contemporary political-strategic, and economic reality — a region that will also shape the world in this century.”
PM Modi said that Abe took bold decisions and his far-reaching policies-Abenomics- reinvigorated the Japanese economy. The Prime Minister said that Abe San had a deep insight into the complex and multiple transitions taking place in the world. “I will always be indebted for his warmth and wisdom, grace and generosity, friendship and guidance, and I will miss him dearly.” The Japanese are known for their devotion to work and Abe died while addressing a stump meeting for a candidate ahead of the Senate elections. Abe fell to bullet shots fired in quick succession from a home-made gun by Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year old local resident in the peaceful and tourist town of Nara in western Japan. The assassin who once worked with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force, is now unemployed and attacked Abe, as he had a grudge against a specific organisation that he believed was linked to Abe.
The assassination has left the Japanese in a state of shock as Japan has never seen such political violence in its post war history of 75 years. Shoichiro Takaji, Bureau Chief of Kyodo, a Japanese news agency said that the attack is very uncharacteristic of Japanese society. According to the July 13 online edition of leading Japanese daily ‘Yomiuri Shimbun’, the National Police Agency has launched a review of the security measures in place on the day the former Prime Minister was attacked. Addressing the Press in Tokyo on July 12, NPA Commissioner General Itaru Nakamura said, “The failure to fulfil the responsibility of dignitary protection has had grave consequences.’’
The NPA aims to compile and publish the outcome of the review by the end of August. While this security review is imperative, the damage is irreversible. The world has lost a charismatic leader who did his best to raise the profile of Japan.