Shinzō Abe's first term: A princeling's attempt to rewrite World War II history

Looking back on politician Shinzō Abe’s career, academic Toh Lam Seng asserts that the greatest driving force of Abe, the “pampered princeling”, was his maternal grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. When Abe became prime minister for the first time in 2006, he was preoccupied with changing Japan’s peace constitution and establishing a new take on Japan’s war history that his grandfather was a large part of. Several hawkish policies followed but his single-minded pursuit and unpopular Cabinet soon led to his departure.
Japan's prime minister-in-waiting Shinzo Abe (right) smiles with newly appointed Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa (centre) and General Council Chairman Yuya Niwa of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party at a party executive meeting in Tokyo, 25 September 2006. (Toshiyuki Aizawa/File Photo/Reuters)
Japan's prime minister-in-waiting Shinzo Abe (right) smiles with newly appointed Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa (centre) and General Council Chairman Yuya Niwa of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party at a party executive meeting in Tokyo, 25 September 2006. (Toshiyuki Aizawa/File Photo/Reuters)

In September 2007, when “Young Master Prime Minister” Shinzō Abe suddenly resigned because of illness after less than a year in office, public opinion was thrown into an uproar. The Japanese media practically condemned Abe in unison with comments along the lines of “running away from a fight”, “shirking his responsibilities”, and “lacking the aptitude of a true politician”. Some commentators saw Abe’s action as a first since the introduction of the Cabinet system in Japan in 1885, and suggested that the immature Abe should stay out of politics for good. 

Fast forward to August 2020 and it is déjà vu as Abe once again resigns for health reasons and in the face of falling approval ratings, not to mention a mix of domestic and international problems that he has had difficulty grappling with. Yet he appears to have received more sympathy from public opinion this time. At least we have yet to hear unhappy criticisms about his resignation. The truth is: in the factional politics of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) there is a tradition of taking turns to call the shots, and hence many are already tired of Abe’s prolonged hold on power. The young ones from various factions have long been itching to make a move, while all the more elderly senior party members sigh over how the party presidency shall never be theirs to take in this lifetime.  

Abe’s resignation a catalyst

Abe’s recent resignation is a shot in the arm for LDP’s members. Very tellingly, right after he made his  announcement, various leading figures began to come into the open with their expressed desire to vie for his position. Usually deathly still, Nagatacho (the district where the centre of Japan’s political power is located) seems to be showing signs of excitement, as if a new round of “black operations” has begun. 

The most preposterous of the latter suggests a connection between the resignation of Abe, the “hawk of hawks”, and pressure from Donald Trump.

A man walks past a large screen showing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's live press conference in Tokyo on 28 August 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)
A man walks past a large screen showing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's live press conference in Tokyo on 28 August 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)

While the politicians and media of Japan are abuzz over the subsequent struggle for predominance, foreign media seem more interested in summing up” Abepolitics”, as well as the question of whether Abe’s brand of diplomacy will continue. Undoubtedly there are those who make proper analyses grounded on facts and sound reasoning, but there is also no lack of interpretations based purely on fiction and wishful thinking.

The most preposterous of the latter suggests a connection between the resignation of Abe, the “hawk of hawks”, and pressure from Donald Trump. It is hinted that the prime minister has resigned not by choice but “in resistance to American pressure”, for Abe was supposedly of the “pro-China camp” within Japan’s conservative power structure.

His greatest driving force for getting into politics, also his strongest political asset and backing, was the maternal grandfather whom he admired most — Nobusuke Kishi...

Abe’s driving force: ‘superior political genes’

It is actually not hard to give a clear account of the losses and gains of Abepolitics, because strictly speaking, Shinzō Abe the pampered princeling has no political philosophy of his own. His greatest driving force for getting into politics, also his strongest political asset and backing, was the maternal grandfather whom he admired most — Nobusuke Kishi, also known as the “Yokai (i.e., monster or goblin) of the Showa era”.

But just who was this Nobusuke Kishi? He was the minister of commerce and industry in Hideki Tojo’s Cabinet, as well as a Class A war criminal suspect. That he could become Japan’s prime minister under the postwar democratic constitution despite being a Class A war criminal suspect was one of the reasons he was dubbed the “Yokai of the Showa era”. Kishi had successfully pushed for a revised Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the US, and had to face fiery protests against him that raged across Japan for the controversial revision. He was forced to step down in 1960 as a result. However, he was still able to support Eisaku Satō, his younger brother by blood, in the subsequent years, securing for him a long prime ministership lasting from 1964 to 1972. In this and other ways Kishi continued to exert influence. The incredible power of the Yokai could not be more evident. 

Shinzo Abe in the arms of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. (Internet)
Shinzō Abe in the arms of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. (Internet)

And there is more. In the decades to come, in the struggle between LDP’s five major factions (named after Takeo Miki, Kakuei Tanaka, Masayoshi Ōhira, Takeo Fukuda and Yasuhiro Nakasone respectively), the dominant force in Japanese politics was that against which the Tanaka faction stood toe-to-toe as its strong rival — the Fukuda faction. Representative of the Fukuda faction were LDP ministers known for their frequent verbal gaffes, advocacy of distortions of history, and above all, for being true inheritors of Nobusuke Kishi’s legacy. 

From financial circles, bureaucratic organisations and even to the cultural domain, Nobusuke Kishi’s minions and believers filled every corner of Japan’s conservative society. It was obviously not without reason that Abe was seen as “the destined one”. To quote a Japanese colleague of mine who specialises in Japanese politics, the biggest thing Abe had going for him for entering politics was good “familial genealogy”. Many commentators simply chalked Abe’s glitter up to his “superior political genes”. 

Abe was determined to establish a new take on the historical war of aggression which Nobusuke Kishi, the maternal grandfather he admired so much, directly took part in and led.

Even so, it took quite a bit to hoist the pampered princeling up in place. Shinzō Abe went into politics officially in 1993. In 1997, a platform was laid out within the LDP for Abe to show his political prowess. It was called the “Group of Young Diet Members for Thinking about the Future of Japan and History Education” (the “Thinking Group”), for which Abe served as the director of Affairs. (The group dropped the word “Young” from its name in 2004.)  

Striving to revise the peace constitution

To put it plainly, the group’s “thinking about the future of Japan” was to propose one thing — that the peace constitution, which forbade postwar Japan from arming itself, be revised. The group’s thinking about “history education” was about overturning the foundations of postwar peace education. And, sure enough, after the Thinking Group was set up, Abe was determined to establish a new take on the historical war of aggression which Nobusuke Kishi, the maternal grandfather he admired so much, directly took part in and led.

Shoichi Nakagawa, Japan Minister of Finance from 24 September 2008 to 17 February 2009. (SPH)
Shōichi Nakagawa, Japan Minister of Finance from 24 September 2008 to 17 February 2009. (SPH)

One obvious example was how Abe joined forces in his early days with his good friend Shōichi Nakagawa — later to become chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council in the first Abe Cabinet, but now deceased — to pressure NHK. The quasi-official TV station was asked to switch out a programme that took a critical stance over wartime Japan’s comfort women issue. Talking about “revising the constitution” at every turn, asserting that “we’ll never back down” when neighbouring Asian countries censured Japanese high officials for paying a formal visit to the Yasukuni Shrine — these were arguably all selling points for the hawkish Abe in his first term of office. 

The best demonstration of Abepolitics in its primal form, however, could perhaps be found in the first Cabinet put together by Abe for the period from 2006 to 2007.

...his career closely revolved around two main themes: constitutional revision and reforming the laws on education.

What did the ‘Thinking Group’ think about?

Consisting of Abe’s like-minded comrades, this Cabinet (mocked by the Japanese media as the “Cabinet of friends”) was where the prime minister publicised or brought to pass in quick succession some of the things advocated by his Thinking Group:

On 15 December 2006, two bills were passed, one for revising the Basic Law on Education, and the other for elevating the Defence Agency to a full-fledged Ministry of Defence. 

On 9 January 2007, the Defence Agency officially became the Ministry of Defence. 

On 17 January 2007, Abe expressed his intention to revise Japan’s constitution at a LDP general meeting. 

On 26 January 2007, Abe spoke of making a “departure from the post-war regime” in his policy speech.

On 10 April 2007, the Basic Act on Ocean Policy was enacted. 

On 14 May 2007, the National Referendum Act was enacted to facilitate constitutional amendments.

On 1 June 2007, two bills were passed, one for revising the Act for the Establishment of the Ministry of Defence, and the other for revising the Self-Defence Forces Act. 

On 20 June 2007, education reform bills were passed. 

A certain consistency is discernible from the foregoing sequence. Although the then 52-year-old “Young Master Prime Minister” had only been in politics for a short time and had yet to develop an actual philosophy of his own, his career closely revolved around two main themes: constitutional revision and reforming the laws on education. In this sense he had faithfully carried on the political bloodline of Nobusuke Kishi the “Yokai of the Showa era”. 

People visit Sensoji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district on 22 September 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
People visit Sensoji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district on 22 September 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

Abe’s proposed “departure from the post-war regime” is universally understood to have been derived from two sources. One is the notion of an “overall review of post-war politics” as put forth by the hawkish Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s, the other is Ichirō Ozawa's discourse on being a “normal nation”, which held sway in Japanese political circles at one time in the 1990s. The three have one objective in common: say nay to the post-war peace constitution and the values advocated by post-war democratic education. 

To make matters worse, in the election for the House of Councillors at the end of July 2007, the LDP suffered a huge defeat under Abe’s leadership, such that the party lost for the first time in its history its highest majority status in the House.

‘Departure from the post-war regime’ is about casting off the peace constitution

Pushing forward all the time, Abe failed to consolidate his gains. Furthermore, he was running the country without offering a whole package of other policies. Needless to say, he could not possibly last long this way. In addition, a succession of scandals broke out in connection with Abe’s handpicked members of his “Cabinet of friends”: Toshikatsu Matsuoka the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries committed suicide when he had to answer for his office’s dubious accounting; his successor Norihiko Akagi was forced to resign due to a funding scandal. During the same period, Abe’s first Minister of Defence Fumio Kyūma was also forced to resign, all because he remarked publicly that America’s dropping an atomic bomb on Japan was something that “could not be helped”. (Kyuma was succeeded by Yuriko Koike, who was dubbed the “Queen of Party-hopping”.)

To make matters worse, in the election for the House of Councillors at the end of July 2007, the LDP suffered a huge defeat under Abe’s leadership, such that the party lost for the first time in its history its highest majority status in the House. According to the rules of the game, Abe should have resigned to take responsibility, yet he was protected by his conservative retainers and refused to step down. He reorganised his Cabinet instead. Unfortunately, support for his Cabinet kept dropping. By 11 September 2007, its approval ratings had fallen to 29%. 

Pedestrians cross a street in front of a Matsumotokiyoshi Co. store built under railway tracks in Tokyo, Japan, on 3 September 2020. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a Matsumotokiyoshi Co. store built under railway tracks in Tokyo, Japan, on 3 September 2020. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg)

On the next day, the “Young Master Prime Minister”, who had been suffering from a stubborn medical condition, simply and suddenly declared he was out of the game, so to speak. Then he hid himself in a hospital for treatment, leaving the country’s public opinion in an uproar. That’s Abepolitics in its primal form for you. 

Looking back on his brief prime ministership from 2006 to 2007, Abe’s greatest regret (in his own words, to the point of “utmost resentment”) was that he had never managed to make an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister. He always kept his eyes on China’s “human rights issue” pertaining to “oppression of ethnic minorities”. In addition, he remained hung up on three landmark statements issued by the post-war Japanese government — i.e., the Miyazawa Statement of 1982, the Kōno Statement of 1993, and the Murayama Statement of 1995. Abe saw these as damaging to his country’s dignity, and maintained that they should all be retracted in effect.

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