Follow us on

|

Asia

Will Japan seek its lodestar in the legacy of Shinzo Abe?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Will Japan seek its lodestar in the legacy of Shinzo Abe?

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking at an election campaign event just before he was shot, at Nara in western Japan on July 8.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking at an election campaign event just before he was shot, at Nara in western Japan on July 8. | Photo Credit: AFP Photo via Jiji Press / TOSHIHARU OTANI

The political establishment will look to militarise Japan and move further to the right.

The assassination of the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the first week of July by a lone gunman was an unprecedented act in the politics of post-war Japan. Abe, who had remained an influential and vocal parliamentarian even after resigning as Prime Minister in 2020, was killed while campaigning for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate for the elections to the upper house of the Diet in the city of Nara.

Tetsuya Yamagami (R), the man accused of murdering former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is escorted by police while leaving the Nara Nishi police station to head to the prosecutor’s office in Nara on July 10.
Tetsuya Yamagami (R), the man accused of murdering former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is escorted by police while leaving the Nara Nishi police station to head to the prosecutor’s office in Nara on July 10. | Photo Credit: AFP via Jiji Press

Political assassinations are rare in Japan and strict gun laws have meant that very few Japanese suffer shooting deaths. Forty-one-year-old Tetsuya Yamagumi, who held a short commission post in the Japanese Navy and has confessed to shooting Abe, used a crude gun which he had assembled at home. Japan immediately went into a period of official mourning, but the campaign for the elections that were to take place two days later restarted after barely a pause.

During his long years at the helm, Abe had become close to fellow right-wing leaders Donald Trump of the US, Narendra Modi of India, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. President Bolsonaro declared an unprecedented three days of national mourning in Brazil for Abe; India and the US also declared a day of mourning. It is only rarely that such an honour is bestowed on a retired head of state. But Abe was different. He was after all Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister and had profoundly influenced the country’s politics.  

Continued influence on politics

Abe demitted office less than two years ago and continued to wield tremendous influence within the LDP afterwards. The LDP, a creation of the Americans to keep out left-wing forces, has monopolised power in Japan. (There was a brief interregnum of three years when an unwieldy coalition led by the opposition was in power.) Abe headed the biggest faction within the LDP and was instrumental in the selection of the two Prime Ministers who followed him. Yoshihide Suga, his immediate successor, resigned within a year to be succeeded by yet another of Abe’s hand-picked candidates, Fumio Kishida.

Japan’s current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He was one of Abe’s hand-picked candidates to succeed him.
Japan’s current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He was one of Abe’s hand-picked candidates to succeed him. | Photo Credit: AFP / PHILIP FONG

Abe hailed from one of Japan’s most famous political dynasties. His maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was Prime Minister  from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been charged with war crimes but all was forgiven after the Americans assigned a leadership role to him in post-war Japan. Kishi survived an assassination attempt as Prime Minister. He was stabbed six times by an assailant after he signed a controversial defence pact with the US in 1960. Abe never hid his admiration for his grandfather’s legacy and had pledged to fulfil his dreams of making Japan a great power again.

LDP funding

The LDP initially depended on funding from the CIA and on wealth looted from China during the Second World War. After that the party started soliciting funds from far-right religious groups and organisations; the Unification Church, for instance, raised money for it. Tetsuya Yamagumi has told the authorities that he shot Abe because of his connection with the Unification Church. Yamagumi’s mother, according to reports, had bankrupted the family by donating most of its wealth to the cult-like grouping. Yamaguchi, after his short-term assignment with the Japanese Navy, had failed to find employment.

The LDP also has intimate links with the right-wing Buddhist religious organisation known as the Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society) which has more than 12 million members. The group’s political wing, known as the Komeito, fights elections in alliance with the LDP.

Abe’s signature economic policy, known as “Abenomics”, was aimed at reviving the country’s flagging economy.
Abe’s signature economic policy, known as “Abenomics”, was aimed at reviving the country’s flagging economy. | Photo Credit: KIYOSHI OTA / Bloomberg

Abe was known for his signature economic policy, known as “Abenomics”. It was aimed at reviving the country’s flagging economy. Big businesses profited, but corporate restructuring had worsened working conditions of the salaried and working classes. When the pandemic hit, Japan’s economy slowed down. In the mass retrenchment that followed, the hardest hit were those working on contract. Following the introduction of Abenomics, 38 per cent of all employees in Japan were on contract.

After Abe’s death, Prime Minister Kishida pledged to fulfil Abe’s long cherished dreams. Abe’s priority during his two stints as Prime Minister was revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which was thrust on the country by the US after the Japanese army’s surrender in 1945. Washington also installed military bases in the country. As one military historian commented, Japan was converted into a virtual US “aircraft carrier”. There are more than 40,000 US soldiers stationed in Japan at present even as public resentment against their presence is growing. Many Japanese believe that the country’s sovereignty has been compromised by the continuing presence of foreign military bases in their country. Abe, however, had no problems with the US bases in Japan.

Shinzo Abe with Chinese President Xi Jinping. One of Abe’s focus areas was on Japan’s historic rivalry with China.
Shinzo Abe with Chinese President Xi Jinping. One of Abe’s focus areas was on Japan’s historic rivalry with China. | Photo Credit: Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP/File Photo

He was more focussed on his country’s historical rivalry with China. China overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy during Abe’s second term in office. With China now being viewed as the US’ main strategic rival, Washington, too, has been supportive of a new Constitution that will allow the Japanese military to join the West in future wars. During his short-lived first term in office, Abe was the first one to talk about the need to ensure a Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP). Speaking to Indian parliamentarians on a visit to Delhi in 2006, he talked about the “Confluence of the Two Seas” connecting the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

Quad: Abe’s baby

Abe has been given the credit for the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Alliance, Quad, comprising  the US, Japan, Australia and India. It was created during his first term in office but remained dormant for more than a decade because India and Australia stayed aloof for reasons including pressure from Beijing. Both Beijing and Moscow had objected to the Quad, saying that the politics of the Cold War era were being introduced in the Asia Pacific region. During his second and longer seven-year stint in office, Abe convinced the Indian leadership of the need to revive the Quad. His task became easier as India was under the rule of a fellow nationalist leader. However, the Quad leadership summits only restarted after Abe demitted office two years ago.

“Abe has been given credit for the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Alliance comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India.”

The Japanese political establishment took a significant turn to the right during Abe’s second term in office. As many Japan-watchers point out, the LDP was never liberal or democratic. Abe was a member of the ultra-nationalist organisation Nippon Kaigi whose avowed goal was to promote Japan’s re-militarisation. The group glossed over the war crimes that the Japanese Imperial army committed in the countries it had occupied in the first half of the 20th century. The current Prime Minister, a protege of Abe, is also a member of the Nippon Kaigi.

Abe used to regularly address the group, promising to push through the constitutional changes required to change the character of the army, known as the Self Defence Force (SDF). Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution has a “no war clause” which specifically states that Japan will not be allowed to have an army that is capable of waging war. In 2014, when the Abe government had a supermajority in both houses of the Diet, Article 9 was watered down to allow the SDF to “engage in collective self-defence” overseas. There were huge protests against this move in Japan at the time. Opposition lawmakers had warned that the legislation would drag Japan into US-led wars.

Visit to Yasukuni war shrine

After he was first elected Prime Minister, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine which houses the ashes of the Japanese war dead, including those accused of serious war crimes. It infuriated Japan’s neighbours, especially China and the two Koreas. Parts of China and the Korean peninsula had experienced Japanese brutality at first hand for decades. These areas had come under direct Japanese colonial rule since the 1920s, which only ended after the Second World War.

A priest (right) leading Abe, the then Prime Minister, on his controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, in December 2013.
A priest (right) leading Abe, the then Prime Minister, on his controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, in December 2013. | Photo Credit: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP

South Korea, which is bound by a military treaty to the US and Japan, was particularly upset with the Abe government over the “comfort women” issue. The Japanese army had enslaved over 2,00,00 women, a large number of them from the Korean peninsula. They were forced to work in military brothels. The row with South Korea over the issue led to a major trade and diplomatic dispute that is yet to be fully resolved.

Conservative Japanese politicians like Abe insisted that the so-called “comfort women” took to their work voluntarily and that the Japanese army and government were not culpable. The Abe government also downplayed “the rape of Nanking” in 1937-38, in which a 3,00,000 Chinese people were killed by the occupying Japanese forces which went on a three-week rampage. Abe’s refusal to apologise for the massacre seriously damaged relations with China.   

In February this year, Abe courted controversy by suggesting that Japan should consider hosting US nuclear weapons on its soil. He claimed that keeping US nukes on Japanese soil would deter possible threats from China and North Korea. The Japanese public remains overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear weapons. They have not forgotten that Japan has been the only country that has been devastated by nuclear warfare.

Abe with US President Joe Biden. In a television interview in February, Abe called on the Biden administration to give up on its “one China” policy.
Abe with US President Joe Biden. In a television interview in February, Abe called on the Biden administration to give up on its “one China” policy. | Photo Credit: AFP/TORU YAMANAKA/File Photo

In the February television interview, Abe also called on the Biden administration to give up on its “one China” policy and said that Japan should aid Taiwan militarily if it came under attack from China.

Domestically, Abe took a confrontational stance towards sections of the media that dared to criticise his political agenda. There were allegations that he used his influence to get rid of television anchors who dared question his controversial domestic and foreign policies. Like in India, right-wing trolls went after journalists who were critical of the government. The liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun came under immense pressure for its critical coverage of the “comfort women” controversy. Investigative journalism became a hazardous profession during Abe’s second stint as Prime Minister. 

In the elections held for the upper house two days after Abe’s death, the LDP registered a huge win. Pollsters had predicted a big victory for the party much before the LDP leader’s demise. Kishida has said that it was his duty “to take over the ideas of former Prime Minister Abe”. With the supermajority that the LDP and its allies have in parliament, they once again have the votes to amend the pacifist constitution. Kishida said that he hoped to have “the people’s understanding” and “deepen the discussion” on the issue.

Amending the Constitution continues to be unpopular with the Japanese public. Besides, there are more important issues for the government to tackle, such as rising inflation, unemployment and the continuing threat posed by the pandemic. Kishida has also followed Abe in calling for increased defence spending and the production of offensive long-range missiles.