About the author:
Brian Wong Yueshun, Ph.D. candidate, Oxford University; Columnist, Hong Kong Economic Journal; TI Youth Observer
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on July 8, 2022, by an extremist ostensibly inspired by his religious affiliation and inclination. As the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history, Abe presided over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Japan for over 9 years. He transformed Japan from a sluggish and declining economy into a regionally and internationally prominent force with substantial bargaining power over economic, geopolitical, and select security affairs in the Indo-Pacific.
There is no question that Abe was a contentious figure. To many in China and South Korea, he was an apologist for Japanese war atrocities. Abe never apologized for the massacre, rape, and systemic assault on territorial integrity and human dignity made in the name of the Japanese Empire. Indeed, Abe took to dismissing evidence for such historical injustices and repeatedly refuted “apologizing again” for the comfort women enslaved by Imperial Japanese Army during World War II – a horror that had been accepted and apologized for under the 1993 Kono Statement.
This article is by no means an attempt to vindicate or defend Abe or some of the more virulent beliefs that he held. Yet, to comprehend Abe fully, he must be situated within the undercurrents of revisionist Japanese nationalism, which rose steadily over the past few decades, and his foreign policy antics and rhetoric through the lens of political strategy and the distinctive contexts in which he operated. The discussion focuses exclusively on both Abe’s foreign policy and domestic policy, which has been noted by many observers as both distinctively nationalistic and an unambiguous romanticization of Japanese imperialist history.1
In Japan, nationalism has grown to be precipitously revisionist over the past three decades. For the first two decades after World War II, a tenuous coalition of American military lobbyists and establishmentarians had tentatively and briefly overseen Japan’s political reconstruction and transition. Moderate nationalists and realists scarred by the events of the first half of the century, took to articulating a broadly liberal and globalist Japanese nationalism. In a speech delivered to the House of Representatives in 1967, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato stated that Japan “shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory.”2 The 1960s to 1970s witnessed a series of high-profile events, including the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the Japanese political establishment sought to combine the Yoshida Doctrine3 (a predominant focus upon internal economic development and complete geo-strategic and military alignment with the United States) with a renewed, values-driven zeal in Japan’s foreign policy. Thus, Japan would seek to uphold the liberal and multilateral values that came to comprise the post-war order.
Much of this changed in the early 1990s. First, the severe economic stagnation that beset Japan demanded a more resounding and convincing explanation to be offered by the nation’s political elites. More specifically, Japan’s rapidly declining population and economic growth numbers meant that it was no longer plausible for the establishment politicians to purely frame internationalized trade as a force for good, without succumbing to allegations of elitism. Second, the rise of competitors within Asia, coupled with China’s reform and opening-up efforts, precipitated a general uneasiness among the Japanese populace, which was discharged through both academic and popular narratives that ostracized “outsiders” including Chinese and Korean peoples. Finally, the decision by leading politicians in the late 1990s and 2000s, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, to “pay tribute” to wartime “heroes” by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, established an implicit norm and expectation that pegged support for the Japanese nation with a fundamental inability to accept and reflect fairly upon the ignominious horrors of war. The political zeitgeist in Japan in the early 2000s was one of angst, acrimony, and resentment, while China’s accelerated economic growth was widely viewed as a harbinger of further declines in Japan’s international influence.
It was against this backdrop that Shinzo Abe first rose to the premiership in September 2006. During his first term, Abe harnessed the simmering discontent among the Japanese public to give impetus and aid his political campaign to revise and broaden the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution4 – a clause which formally and nominally renounced Japan’s right of belligerency and precluded Japan from developing armed forces with war potential. Abe affirmed America’s war efforts in the Middle East and adopted a high-profile stance on the Diaoyu Islands dispute. He both permitted and leveraged the rise of ultra-nationalistic, right-wing, selective accounts of Japanese history that glossed over Japan’s historical errors. By comparison, the official stance of the government appeared more “moderate” and lent Abe’s political theatrics greater credibility and resonance among the wider public. Ironically, Abe’s first-term agenda and ambitious vision for Japan were cut short, not because of his aggressive foreign policy, but due to the series of scandals that rocked his cabinet, coupled with the suicide of his Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka. As a consequence, Abe was forced to resign after only twelve months as Prime Minister.
After serving two years as an ordinary member of the National Diet, Abe became leader of the opposition LDP when it lost power, for only the second time since its foundation in 1955, in the 2009 election. However, three years later Abe led the LDP to its 2012 election victory. It was during Abe’s subsequent eight-year tenure as PM that his complex relationship with revisionist nationalism truly took shape. It is worth noting that despite the alignment between Abe and the right-wing ultra-nationalists on some issues, fundamental disparities and limits persisted in their “relation of convenience.” As such, Abe began to resist and curtail the excesses of the increasingly popular right-wing ultra-nationalist narratives – Abe needed to rein in the beast.
More concretely, Abe’s worldview, which sought close alignment with the U.S. and promotion of a “democracy and freedom” world order, actively clashed with the militarist and implicit anti-American sentiments espoused by those who felt that Japan’s de-militarization under the American occupation had been a national humiliation.
To advance his foreign policy agenda, Abe selected Fumio Kishida as Foreign Minister. Kishida, currently both Prime Minister and President of the LDP, was widely seen as a more status quo-preserving moderate than a revanchist rebel. Together they undertook a substantial number of foreign visits in the first two years of Abe’s premiership and turned to build more robust economic and strategic partnerships with ASEAN states. To achieve his ASEAN ambitions, Abe refrained both superficially and rhetorically, but not substantively, from venerating and championing Japan’s imperialist past. Among the Southeast Asian states Abe was seeking to court, Japanese imperial rule still held bitter memories. In visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and domestically emphasizing his credentials as a devout “Japanese nationalist,” Abe was able to pursue a quieter militarist foreign policy. Inserting a cautious distance between himself and far-right ultranationalists was both a well-advised public perceptual move, and a necessary play for broader international support.
The Prime Minister was by no means a dove when it came to fundamental questions of militarization and rearmament. He was fully cognizant that words alone would not suffice in – and indeed were not necessary for – mollifying pro-war sentiments. In late June and early July 2014, Abe turned to lifting the long-standing moratorium on Japanese military deployment abroad, by expanding the jurisdiction of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF). This scope expansion, which permitted the SDF to defend Japan’s “allies” and consolidated its status as a de facto army for Japan, was followed by a further authorization in 2014 of the supply of resources and weaponry to Japanese allies in conflicts abroad. Such legislative moves were – whilst nominally promulgated by the government – fundamentally exercises of public opinion, which were in turn selectively bolstered and incorporated into policies by Shinzo Abe’s leadership. Noticeably, many of these changes were not narrated through Japan’s reclaiming what it was ostensibly entitled to, but through the oft-touted vision of Japan playing a role in maintaining regional security and resolving territorial disputes. Indeed, as Jeff Kingston has argued, Abe often framed his security policy as proactive pacifism designed to empower Japan in exercising collective self-defense without pursuing total war.5 Abe’s clever justification shrewdly sidestepped allegations of revanchism and militarism, although, for neighbors such as China and South Korea, the writing had been on the wall. Indeed, for almost two years after his return to power, Abe did not meet with the leaders of either country.6 Despite Abe’s sly branding, there were real consequences to his channeling of jingoism to continuously expand the reach and intensity of the Japanese military-security apparatus.
At the beginning of his third term in 2015, Abe adopted a distinctively more pragmatic and flexible approach to both China and South Korea. In lieu of the amorphous flirtation – and leveraging of – extreme militarist sentiments, he sought to signal a partial, yet subtle, departure that did not fundamentally deviate, but certainly tonally shifted, from his prior stances on Japan’s role in World War II. On August 14, 2015, in a speech to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe made no apology, but articulated only his “eternal, sincere condolences,” for the “immeasurable damage and suffering” caused by Japan for “innocent people”7 during the war. The statement broadly adhered to the lines adopted by his more pacifist and conciliatory predecessors. The joint China-Japan-South Korea summit in 2015 featured the first official trilateral dialogue between Park Geun-Hye, Li Keqiang, and Shinzo Abe, in which the leaders agreed to negotiate trilateral free trade agreements and commit to North Korean denuclearization. Abe even pledged to – and followed through on – apologizing to South Korea for the “comfort women” issue, with Japan paying one billion yen to support the 46 surviving victims of the episode. Notwithstanding the limited criticisms he received from elements in the public, Abe’s move enabled him to significantly reset the nature of South Korean-Japanese relations, at a minimal cost.
Abe’s attitudes to nationalism – especially revisionist nationalism – were complex and multi-faceted. In his foreign policy, he drew upon the support of hard-lined nationalists, but never openly courted them. He distanced himself from ultranationalism in his foreign policy and stances on international affairs as needed and couched his nationalism through the lens of internationalist pacifism – and when the time was ripe, he did not hesitate in burying it altogether to secure significant political victories.
Towards the final years of his tenure, Abe took on the mantle of repairing Sino-Japanese relations. He visited China in October 2018 – with both sides pledging to take their relations in a “new historic direction.” Abe committed to multi-million-dollar deals and deepening investment partnerships with China. At no point during the visit did he bring up issues of World War II. In deftly navigating the increasingly complex Indo-Pacific, China held firm to its baselines whilst accepting that economic rapprochement would be in the interest of both Japanese and Chinese peoples. A quiet, yet formidable consensus had been reached – one that would see Beijing and Tokyo continually build relations across areas and spheres where they could, to the mutual benefit of present and future generations.
Yet this does not mean that the dust of history has thus settled. With Abe’s passing, his two successors Suga and Kishida have adopted once again a more hardened stance towards China – not only in domestic rhetoric but also in their alignment with American interests and positions. Talk of the QUAD, as well as Japan’s renewed role to play in the Indo-Pacific ambitions of America, has increasingly come to the forefront of public discourse. Abe’s contributions towards Sino-Japanese relations cannot be underestimated – but they must, once again, be situated within his broader political ambitions, as a leader who sought to revitalize the Japanese economy through export-led growth and stimulus, and yet who remained fundamentally obsessive and intransigent in his historical revisionism. The future of Sino-Japanese relations remains uncertain – the hope is that as time goes by, those who seek to rewrite history shall be confronted with the naked, unmissable facts and truth, which cannot and should not be changed.
1. John Nilsson-Wright, “Shinzo Abe: Revisionist Nationalist or Pragmatic Realist?,” BBC News, August 28, 2020, sec. Asia, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53950704.
2. Sato Eisaku, “The Nobel Peace Prize 1974,” NobelPrize.org, November 11, 1974, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1974/sato/lecture/.
3. Hiroyuki Hoshiro, “Deconstructing the ‘Yoshida Doctrine,’” Japanese Journal of Political Science, February 8, 2022, 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1017/s1468109922000019.
4. “Article 9 - a Global Common Value for a Peaceful and Substainable World,” Global Article 9 Campaign, 2008, http://www.article-9.org/en/index.html.
5. Jeff Kingston, “One-Hand Clapping: Japanese Nationalism in the Abe Era,” in Japan and Asia’s Contested Order Asia Today (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 147–63. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-0256-5_7
6. Ankit Panda, “Shinzo Abe at World Economic Forum: ‘Restrain Military Expansion in Asia,’” thediplomat.com, January 23, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/01/shinzo-abe-at-world-economic-forum-restrain-military-expansion-in-asia/.
7. “Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister) | Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet,” Kantei.go.jp, August 24, 2015, https://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201508/0814statement.html.
Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.
This article is from the August issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the August issue, please click here:
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