Will Abe Shinzo’s death give his agenda new life?
The Christian Science Monitor, July 11, 2022
by Daniel Sneider, lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University and a former foreign correspondent who covered Japan and Korea for The Christian Science Monitor and is an APP member
Flags flew at half-staff throughout Tokyo on Monday as high-ranking officials gathered for the wake of Japan’s preeminent political leader Abe Shinzo, whose violent passing has understandably prompted a global outpouring of grief and of praise.
Many rightfully remembered Mr. Abe as a statesman, the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s postwar history, who guided his nation to a renewed role as a global power.
But viewed from within Japan, Mr. Abe presents a more complex figure. Throughout his controversial political career, he displayed two faces. There was the ideological Mr. Abe, a scion of a tradition of right-wing nationalism, determined to finally transcend the pacifist legacy and stain of Japan’s wartime defeat. That Mr. Abe often clashed with the pragmatic politician, adept at the use of power but accepting the limits on his actions imposed by Japan’s democracy.
One of Japan’s most influential prime ministers, Abe Shinzo, was driven by ideology as well as pragmatism, says a Monitor analyst. He was determined to move Japan out of the shadow of World War II and into a significant role on the world stage.
Mr. Abe wanted Japan to take a more prominent role in global affairs as an economic and diplomatic leader. But domestically, he had to battle a postwar reticence about a higher profile, while internationally, he stirred mistrust among those who felt the country had not fully taken responsibility for its wartime conduct.
“New conservative” roots
Mr. Abe came to politics in the early 1990s in a typical Japanese fashion – he inherited his seat in Japan’s Diet, or parliament, from his father, who had served as foreign minister. But the more important influence on Mr. Abe was his grandfather, the former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, a member of imperial Japan’s wartime Cabinet who was arrested but never tried as a war criminal by the American occupation.
Mr. Kishi, a fierce anti-communist, returned to become a leader of the postwar conservative coalition, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In 1960, he was the architect of the revision of Japan’s security treaty with the United States, driven by his desire for Japan to become a more equal partner with its former foe and take on a security role.
From the beginning of his political career, Mr. Abe embraced the agenda of the “new conservatives” in Japan who looked back to the Kishi era. They sought a return of Japanese pride and patriotism, the rollback of occupation-era educational reforms, and the revision of the American-drafted constitution, particularly Article 9 in which Japan forever renounced “war as a sovereign right of the nation and threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”
Mr. Abe often called for “bringing an end to the postwar regime.” For Mr. Abe and his allies in the LDP, this included reversing the judgment of the war crimes tribunals that branded Japan an aggressor. They offered a view of the war as a justified act of self-defense and liberation of Asia from Western imperialism. From battles over textbooks to visiting the shrine to Japan’s war dead, Mr. Abe and the new conservatives assailed what they labeled a left-wing “masochistic” view of Japan’s proud history.
Mr. Abe rose within the LDP on the coattails of the popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, succeeding him in September 2006 as the youngest man in the postwar period to assume that office. He touted his favored manifesto – to revise the constitution, build a more equal partnership with the U.S., and “leave behind the postwar regime.”
Mr. Abe’s pursuit of that ideological mission proved a disaster.
On a 2007 visit to the U.S., he drew harsh criticism for insisting that the women dragooned into sexual servitude by the Imperial Army during the war – the so-called comfort women – did so voluntarily. While Mr. Abe fought an election for Japan’s upper house of parliament under the banner of constitutional revision, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) focused on bread-and-butter issues like pension reform and won a stunning victory. In September 2007, after only a year in office, Mr. Abe resigned in disgrace.
Abe Shinzo, then secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, places a red rosette as he hears one of the LDP candidates winning the election during the ballot counting for the parliamentary upper house election at the party headquarters in Tokyo, July 11, 2004. Even after stepping down as prime minister in 2020, Mr. Abe remained a powerful figure in the LDP.
In the fall of 2012, a chastened Mr. Abe refashioned himself as a pragmatist and returned to the leadership of the LDP. He set aside his ideological agenda to emphasize the economy, touting a plan, later labeled “Abenomics,” to revive Japan’s stagnant economy and promote innovative reform. Japanese voters, seeking stability after the DPJ’s poor handling of the massive 2011 earthquake and ensuing nuclear power plant crisis, returned LDP to power in a landslide victory that December.
Mr. Abe’s comeback as prime minister was marked by a canny, sometimes ruthless, use of power. He created a strong central office, crushed opposition within the bureaucracy, and took command of the factions that formed the ruling party. Mr. Abe focused on putting Japan back on the world stage as an economic power and a defender of the international order. “Japan is back,” he told a Washington audience early in what turned into eight years in office.
Mr. Abe never entirely shelved his ideological dreams, but he put them on a back burner. Constitutional reform remained prominent on the LDP manifestoes but in the face of overwhelming public opposition was never seriously pursued.
Instead, Mr. Abe chose a more politically viable, but still controversial, path of forcing through a revised interpretation of the constitution, which ruled that Japan could exercise the right to collective self-defense, including the use of force, in support of allies beyond the boundaries of Japan itself. In 2015, over strong opposition within parliament and from the public, Mr. Abe pushed through a package of security legislation that established that definition, though with some limits.
Still, the ideologue continued to peek through.
Ideologue or pragmatist
In December 2013, Mr. Abe made an official visit as prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine, an act that predictably triggered huge protests from South Korea and China, and also angered the U.S., which was trying to improve relations among the Northeast Asian countries. In 2014, Mr. Abe launched an assault on The Asahi Shimbun, the flagship of the liberal media, accusing it of using false evidence in its claims about the coercion of comfort women. But the next year, under American pressure, Mr. Abe signed off on an agreement with South Korea to apologize for the treatment of the women and pay the surviving victims’ compensation.
That same year, Mr. Abe reiterated a 1995 apology for Japan’s pursuit of “colonial rule and aggression” – terminology the conservative nationalists rejected – but replaced that language with a milder formulation that “Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war” causing “immeasurable damage and suffering.”
In 2016, Donald Trump came to office in the U.S., dismissive of the security alliances and economic order created out of the war. Mr. Abe saw this as a threat to Japan’s existence, and again put his ideological concerns aside to focus on preserving the country’s security alliance with the U.S., stepping into a rare leadership role as a defender of the postwar system.
Japan took on the responsibility to proceed with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact without the U.S. after Mr. Trump backed out of the deal. Though Mr. Abe shared the American fear of China and of its hegemonic aspirations, he also moved to cultivate ties to Xi Jinping and to soften the impact of Mr. Trump’s trade war with China. Under Mr. Abe, Japan also asserted itself as a leader in Southeast Asia and drew India into closer ties through a quadrilateral partnership with the U.S. and Australia.
Yet Mr. Abe’s ideological obsessions never really wavered. After leaving office two years ago, he remained the most powerful figure in the LDP and used his pulpit to advocate for tough stances on military buildup, open a debate about nuclear weapons for Japan, and hammer away at his cherished goal of revising the constitution.
Mr. Abe’s shocking assassination may prove to be the catalyst for that last piece of his agenda to finally be realized. The apparent sympathy vote for the LDP in Sunday’s upper house election has created a two-thirds majority in favor of revision, positioning the party to put it to a national referendum. Indeed, in the wake of the vote, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said he “would like to push forward efforts” on constitutional reform.
That, perhaps, will bring a final judgment on which Mr. Abe – the ideologue or the pragmatist – prevails.