Abe Shinzo believed that Japan should be decisive in the world
Syears back, when he was interviewed The Economist, Abe Shinzo was asked if he saw himself as a Choshu revolutionary. After all, he was from Yamaguchi, the prefecture in southwestern Japan that covered the ancient Choshu domain; his father, who was once a foreign minister, had represented the area, and after 1993 he had held that seat himself. It was the samurai of Choshu who understood, in the middle of the 19th century, that if Japan did not review its institutions, its army and its economy, the West would be swallowed up. They both helped bring down the tired Tokugawa shogunate and usher in the Meiji Restoration that changed and modernized Japan.
Did he see it that way? He liked the question. He was proud of being from Choshu, and of what his ancestors had done. Of course, they wanted to keep outsiders out; but they were also broad-minded people, who knew that Japan had to capture it, quickly. They had risked their lives to achieve it.
His grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, had followed the tradition when, as prime minister in 1960, he signed Japan’s security agreement with the United States. As a small child, sitting on his grandfather’s lap, Shinzo had listened to loud screams of protest from outside. But Kishi believed that the agreement was necessary for peace and stability, so he opposed his opponents.
A sense of mission ran in the family, as did politics, so that was his natural role. Friends thought he was too noble for him, but his parents had forced him, not his older brother, to follow the family concern. Once he was there, he found it suited him. His first administration, which lasted almost a year in 2006-07, was a failure; but in his second, running from 2012 to 2020, he found Choshu’s voice.
He was badly needed. His country was in the grip of hyperinflation, with too many elderly people and a falling birth rate. Meanwhile, next door, China was growing. It was time – the time – to bring back the spirit Japan had lost, both through defeat and the post-war crises of becoming an industrial power. His plan was for a “beautiful” country: strong, moral and an example to the world.
The shock the economy needed was delivered in style fifty he was an archer. He raised a bow to shoot “three arrows” at the target: bold expansion of the money supply, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. The first shot came well, the second too short, the third nowhere near it, hitting long-standing obstacles in the labor market; but nevertheless Japan regained its vitality as a growing and job-creating economy. Eventually, his efforts even made him popular.
His main concern, however, was that Japan should assert itself in the world. For too long he had been toying nervously, crying out for atonement for the crimes he had committed in World War II, upholding a constitution written by the American citizens who ‘ he had to be peaceful and depend on the United States for his protection. This would no longer do. Japan had to be a more equal partner and also be ready to fight alongside allies abroad, like any other country. So in the teeth of strong opposition, he increased defense spending and redefined Article 9 of the constitution, the clause that renounced war. He didn’t want to hire one, just to lose the shackles on Japan’s freedom of action.
He felt that Japan also had to retell its history. His opening act in 2006 was to enact a law revising school textbooks to stamp out violence and bring it to the nationalist side. In that view, like himself, his grandfather was a reformer. To the rest of the world, however, he was a war criminal, the builder of Japan’s war machine. The Americans didn’t need him, but they imprisoned him for three years. At school, other children teased his grandson about that. He wanted the teasing to stop.
For him, too, the Yasukuni shrine for the war dead in Tokyo was a memorial to brave fallen soldiers. To the rest of the world he was polluted with monuments to war criminals, and his appearance there as prime minister, in 2013, caused an uproar in China and the Koreas. He was asking why. Surely it was normal for any national leader to pay such respect? He could not accept that future generations of Japan, who had nothing to do with that war, should ever have to apologize, as if the world could not move on forward.
Besides, when apologies were concerned, he felt he owed something to Japan. Having no children of his own, he eagerly took up the cause of parents whose children were kidnapped to North Korea to teach Japanese to spies. He especially took Yokota Megumi, at 13 the youngest kidnapper, who was caught walking home from badminton practice. In 2002, as part of a delegation led by Koizumi Junichiro, then prime minister, he brought back five abductees. Megumi was not one of them. But he demanded in Pyongyang that Kim Jong Il, the supreme leader, should apologize publicly to the delegation, which he did; and until the end of his life he wore the little blue badge that held out hope for himself and others.
He could be just as sure as other bosses, or he could turn the charm on him. The goal was to make Japan not only present, but visible, on the world stage. When Donald Trump was elected he was the first foreign leader to meet him. His visits to Vladimir Putin were frequent and open, even if he got nowhere in his bid to reclaim the disputed Northern Territories. After America withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, he took control of it. When he met with Xi Jinping, using his visit to end “reconciliation payments” that Japan no longer needed for its brutal aggression against China in the 1930s, he greeted Xi’s bitter mood with a smile . China may have overtaken Japan in the economic power rankings; but Japan was the real example in the region, confident, energetic, without being swallowed up.
The Meiji Restoration he had been supporting had slowly slipped into violent militarism. His critics saw a shadow of that in him. He saw only patriotism and national self-confidence that was long overdue. The line between the two could be hard to draw, and he didn’t always try. The simplest wish was that Japan should never be oppressed again. He did not believe in ghosts. ■