The man who restored Japan
Shinzo Abe has led Japan to overcome its war guilt and emerge as a major global power
To appreciate the achievement of Shinzo Abe, who on Friday announced his decision to resign as Japan’s prime minister because of faltering health, consider the state of the country he inherited. Between 2007, the year Abe vacated the prime minister’s office after serving exactly for a year, and 2012—when Abe staged a spectacular comeback—Japan had seen off five prime ministers in rapid succession. In fact, with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi, no Japanese prime minister had completed the full four-year term since 1987. A debilitating fatalism had seized Japan: a nation that had risen from the ashes of World War II to become the richest economy on earth after the United States was becoming reconciled to the prospect of irretrievable decline.
Such a posture may have struck some as virtuous. To Abe, it was sacrilegious. The scion of a storied political dynasty, he wanted Japan to become a “nation which can withstand the raging waves for the next 50 to 100 years to come”. Abe nursed a lifelong grievance against what he described as the “terrible” Constitution drafted by the Allied forces after Japan’s decimation in 1945. His greatest political aspiration was to revoke the clause that shackled Tokyo to pacifism as a form of punishment for the sins of imperial Japan. In a land where singing the national anthem with enthusiasm can be seen as a symptom of hawkishness, Abe approached voters with a pledge to “take back Japan”. As a campaigner, he was a populist before the word entered common usage. Once in office, however, he evolved into something altogether different.
Abe did not disavow his conservatism: he aligned it to the challenges before him
The ideological passions that animated his politics were almost instantly subordinated to the higher cause of dispassionate service to Japan. As democracy after democracy fell to populists, Abe, the original populist, travelled in the opposite direction: a rare leader in the democratic world who did not allow partisanship to consume him. Abe did not disavow his conservatism: he aligned it to the challenges before him. The upshot? In the eight years since his return to power in 2012, he presided over the longest period of economic expansion in Japan’s post-war history and the lowest unemployment rate in at least a quarter century. He introduced free preschool and day care for children between the ages of 3 and 5 and created the conditions for the entry of a record number of women into the workforce.
Imparting stability to Japan was the preliminary act. As Tobias Harris reminds us in his important and outstanding new biography of Japan’s outgoing prime minister, The Iconoclast, Abe did not hesitate to dispute and dismantle the dogmas of his own side to pursue policies—such as the guest worker programme—he believed were imperative to securing Japan’s future. He deployed, Harris writes, “his power to defy his conservative allies and open Japan to the world”. At the same time, he strove to be conciliatory with all those who did not vote for him, regarded him with implacable suspicion, and marched against his “militarism” on the streets. This perhaps explains why, despite protests, criticism and scandal, he was able to lead his conservative Liberal Democratic Party to a series of comfortable victories at the ballot box and cement its position effectively as the default party of government in Japan.
And yet Abe has routinely been faulted at home and abroad for seeking to emancipate Japan from the limits on its defensive capabilities enshrined in the Constitution imposed upon it by outsiders. But his detractors have never explained how the atrocities of a departed generation of Japanese mitigate the aggression of Japan’s neighbours today. What conceivable justification is there for the abduction of Japanese citizens by the Kim dynasty of North Korea? What should Tokyo do when China’s clients in Pyongyang threaten to go nuclear and accompany their threats with missiles that sail over Japanese territory? How long can Tokyo continue to repose faith in an America that claims it is committed to the security of Japan while also legitimising and facilitating the rise of the expansionist autocracies that necessitate the security commitments to Japan in the first place?
No act of self-flagellation by Japan can satisfy those who wield history as a weapon
Perhaps those who preach to Japan should look at the world from the perspective of the Japanese. Take, for instance, the Yasukuni Shrine. Inaugurated in 1869, it memorialises not only the 14 Class A war criminals from World War II but also the millions of Japanese who perished in that conflagration and before it. The site, it is true, has become a place of pilgrimage for people who harbour a squalid nostalgia for the age when Japan was Asia’s monster. But the absence of universal acknowledgement among the Japanese of the atrocities inflicted by their forebears on defenceless peoples in Asia cannot be sustained as the reason for Japan to relinquish the right to determine its own security today. Name a country Japan has invaded in the past seven decades? While the Communist Party of China starved tens of millions of its subjects to death and colonised Tibet and East Turkestan and bleached those places of their culture and language and religion, Japan—razed to a rubble with atomic payloads—became the largest donor of international aid.
In an address to the Australian parliament six years ago, Abe expressed profound remorse for Japan’s past. “I can find absolutely no words to say,” he told his audience in one of the most extraordinary speeches by any head of government. “I can only stay humble against the evils and horrors of history.” But no utterance of regret and no act of self-flagellation by Japan can satisfy those who wield history as a weapon to advance their interests. They do not want penance from Japan: they want Japan to acquiesce in their paramountcy in Asia. In 2009, China managed to follow up its condemnation of Taro Aso, Japan’s prime minister at the time, for leaving an offering at Yasukuni—a symbol, Beijing justly said, of Japanese imperialism—with a denunciation of Washington for hosting the Dalai Lama, a man who is a casualty of Chinese imperialism. The regime that wants Japan to disown its war dead and forever apologise for the deeds of an imperial dispensation that was incinerated almost eight decades ago would also like the world to countenance and cooperate with Chinese imperialism in Tibet.
In an era of American retreat, Abe rose to the occasion and became the leader of democratic Asia. He cast himself in the role of a dragoman with Donald Trump, disregarding his provocations, absorbing his insults, and working with and around him for an end greater than this moment. When Trump detonated the Trans-Pacific Partnership by withdrawing Washington from it, Justin Trudeau, the beau ideal of intellectually inert Westerners, reacted with unsurprising cravenness. He flew to Vietnam in 2017 to sign the deal but reneged at the last moment and hid from the cameras. It fell to Abe not only to announce Ottawa’s exit—but also to shoulder the duty of keeping the deal alive by leading the negotiations with the remaining countries. The abrupt subtraction of North America from the TPP should have resulted in its immediate demise. It remained alive because of the effort of Abe. Even those who opposed the TPP marvelled at his leadership.
Abe saw with greater clarity the gathering storm in Asia than perhaps any of his contemporaries, and he worked to prepare Japan—and the wider world—for it while navigating all the political obstacles before him. Never giving up on diplomacy with China (or Russia), he worked energetically to build a democratic coalition to equip Asia for Chinese belligerence long before the outbreak of the coronavirus accelerated events. Abe made Japan a leader of Asia—and a contender for global leadership.
When Abe was first sworn in, he entered history as Japan’s youngest prime minister. He will leave office as the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history. The coronavirus deprived him of the opportunity to host the summer Olympics in Tokyo, harmed the economy, and damaged his popularity. But what will haunt Abe more in retirement is his failure to resolve the fate of Japanese abductees in North Korea—an issue that became the first serious cause of his political career. The other piece of unfinished business—rewriting the Constitution—will probably trouble him less. His ambition to amend the Constitution may have originated in the crucible of nationalist ideology, but it was reinforced by his recognition of the altering geopolitical landscape around him. He could, had he chosen, have had his way, but he did not want to taint the revised charter with the blemish of division and confrontation. The democrat in him wanted it to be forged in consensus.
No nation can long endure the suicidal conception of atonement foisted upon Japan without erupting with indignation. Abe may have tempered the resentments accumulating beneath the surface—and possibly averted an explosion—by fostering a democratic debate about Japan’s security. As Anthony Trollope explained in Phineas Finn—a novel published in the year the Meiji Restoration began in Japan—this slow process of persuasion and conversion is the strength of democracies. “Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult,” a party elder tells Phineas after his bill to aid Irish tenant farmers is defeated. “And so, in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable—and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” When eventually Japan assumes responsibility for its own protection and survival, Abe will be recognised and remembered with gratitude, affection, and reverence as the leader who took what Trollope called “the first great step”.
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