Last year, Steven Bannon, once security advisor to US president Donald Trump, and now under arrest for fraud, praised Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe as a great hero to the grassroots, the populist and the nationalist movement throughout the world. The speech was delivered in Tokyo to a group of Liberal-Democratic Party members so it may have been a bit effusive, but Bannon certainly understood the thrust of Abe’s political philosophy.
Abe started his political career in the years of the lost decade when the economic ‘bubble’ had burst and the years of high growth and prosperity seemed a distant dream. The promise of the 21st century being a Japanese century had vanished. The birth rate was declining and neighbouring China was fast developing into an industrial powerhouse. Japan seemed incapable of meeting the economic and social challenges it was confronting.
Abe’s economic policy and his nationalist position struck a cord with the electorate and has kept him in power as prime minister since 2012. But many have seen is ideas as a ‘war on truth’. His political vision and historical ideas echo Trump in the US or the agenda of the BJP and its affiliates here. Perhaps that is why he seems to have an appeal in India as well.
Abe comes from an illustrious political family, replete with viscounts, generals, bureaucrats, prime minsters and Class-A war criminals. His maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a key figure in the puppet state of Manchukuo, a supporter of the army and of the ‘national defense state’. An admirer of the Nazis, he went on to become prime minster after the war.
Abe carries this legacy forward.
Abe has dismissing the idea that Manchukuo (what are now the northern provinces of China) was ever a puppet state, denied that the Japanese army employed what are euphemistically called ‘comfort women’ for their troops, argued that the Japanese tried as war criminals in the Tokyo War crimes tribunals were never war criminals under Japanese domestic law, visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine both as cabinet secretary of the Liberal-Democratic Party and as prime minister; and has tried to revise the postwar constitution.
The constitution, drafted and enacted during the US-led Allied occupation, restricted the Japanese from building a military force – though they have got around that over the years. In particular, he wanted to remove Article 9 that renounced the use of force in the conduct of foreign relations, and make Japan a ‘normal country’. This Article prevents Japan from participating in military actions outside Japan.
These were all the standard red flags that marked the political boundaries after World War Two. Progressive and democratic forces saw the new constitution as a way to build a democratic Japan and looked to recognise their responsibility for the devastation they had visited in their colonies and in their wars in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki further re-enforced the idea that Japan had to carve out a new, non-violent path. Peace movements advocated limiting the defence forces and civil society groups began to address the biases in the textbooks to make the new generation aware.
The historian Ienaga Saburo in 1953 took the Ministry of Education to court for censoring his textbook as he dealt with past atrocities and massacres, this at a time when the Chinese, under Mao Zedong, were quite willing to forget about the past. Ienaga’s long drawn fight led to changes in the rules and ensured that the committee’s examinations and objection are now public and debated. Of course, non-prescribed textbooks can be freely published.
Conservative resistance, which had always been there, has increased. Many continue to argue either that in war such things happen and the Japanese were doing nothing exceptional, or outright deny the massacres or brutality as myths. In fact, the defense has usually been centred around the idea that Japan was waging a war against Western colonialism to liberate Asia. Today, this historical whitewashing is recombined with a patriarchal idea of family, and closing Japan to foreign immigration. This is a battle that continues. That is why apologies, compensation for past wrongs, and constitutional revision, or immigration, continue to be important markers of political positions.
Abe has been a strong backer of the Japanese Society for Textbook revision which denies sexual slavery but he was forced to acknowledge its existence when the government report produced by the cabinet secretary of the LDP Yohei Kono officially acknowledged that there was sexual slavery. But he pressed on. He instituted a Restoration of Sovereignty Day in 2015 to mark the end of the US Occupation, and has supported very tight immigration laws.
As in many other parts of the world, political conservatism and economic neo-liberal policies have gained strength since the ’90s and Abe has represented that and been an important shaper of these policies. He has been popular, but not always effective. He failed to push through the revision of the constitution, which he thought would be the mark of his legacy. Some see him as pragmatic given how he has tried to work with China. In the disputes over the Senkaku, or Diaoyudai, as the Chinese call them, islands in 2012, he acknowledged that there was a dispute.
But his track record during the COVID-19 pandemic has been poor. In comparison to neighbouring South Korea, Abe was slow off the mark and hesitant. The COVID-19 cases on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that docked in Yokohama Bay, were badly handled, and his popularity plummeted in May with a majority disapproving his management. The public thought he was using the crisis to help his business friends.The Expert Group that had been set up to decide on what measures to take gave recommendations that Abe did not like, so he disbanded the group and formed another one, bringing in celebrities with little medical expertise.
Abe has been focused on allowing business to continue as the economy is doing badly and the public thinks he is ignoring the health risks. Reports also suggest that he was pushing officials to approve Avigan, a domestic drug for treating COVID-19 though the initial results of tests were disappointing.
The canceling of the Tokyo Olympics is another huge economic blow. Abe dithered till the last possible moment before canceling, winning no friends.
Abe’s resignation on health grounds may be an opportunity for him. The elections for the president of the LDP are due to be held September 2021 and elections for the Lower House are due in December 2021. Abe will continue as prime minster till the new one is appointed, which means he continues to have power and can influence the political manoeuvring for leadership.
Commentators have suggested he could even have an early party presidential election, or even call for a snap poll. Given his declining popularity over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cancelling of the Olympic games, and the economic downturn, this may have been an opportune moment for him to take a step back.
Brij Tankha retired as professor of modern Japanese history from Delhi University and is an honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.