Shinzō Abe's second term: Was Abe pro-China? Should the Chinese miss him?

Entering his second term in 2012,  Shinzō Abe immaculately repackaged his image in a bid to shed some of the baggage from his first 2006-2007 term, says academic Toh Lam Seng. But Abe was still the man he was before — a descendant of Nobusuke Kishi, the “Yokai (i.e., monster or goblin) of the Showa era”, and a hawkish politician focused on amending Japan’s peace constitution. There was never a pro-China Abe as portrayed by the media. Now with his younger brother Nobuo Kishi coming into the spotlight in the new Cabinet, it looks like the political bloodline of the “Yokai of the Showa era” will continue on and have an impact on Japan’s policies. 
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen on a large screen during a live press conference in Tokyo on 28 August 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen on a large screen during a live press conference in Tokyo on 28 August 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)

Japan was the first country in Asia to “modernise”. Its Meiji Restoration of 1868 is a reform movement well known to all. Nevertheless, if anyone thinks that Japanese politics has long been “modernised”, they are in for a big shock. That is because for many electoral districts even today, especially in the rural areas which are the Conservatives’ stronghold, the election or continued incumbency of a Diet member is determined not so much by the candidate’s aptitude, political credibility and competence, but predominantly by local ties, blood ties and financial ties.  

To put it in another way, a map of the distribution of political power over all of Japan would capture a history of shifting influences, and the realities of how the forces of local ties, blood ties and financial ties hold sway over the major political parties (or, more specifically, the different factions within them). 

Shinzō Abe makes a comeback

Shinzō Abe the “Young Master Prime Minister” is a case in point. By the end of his first term of office, not only had Abe hardly achieved anything, he was also accused of “running away from a fight” and “shirking his responsibilities”. While this did not suffice to spell the end of his political career, normally it would pretty much be mission impossible for him to make a comeback and become prime minister again. 

And yet, in Japan’s political ecosphere as described above, through internal consultation and planning by conservatives who were followers of the philosophy of Nobusuke Kishi (Abe’s maternal grandfather known as “Yokai (i.e., monster or goblin) of the Showa era” and a former prime minister who was a Class A war criminal suspect), certain arrangements were able to take shape. Their purpose was to actively seek to reinstall Abe to the seat of power. As the drama of renewed support unfolded, the “Young Master”, seen as bearing “superior political genes”, found himself to have recovered from his illness after “taking new medication”. Abe was all ready to get into action again. 

How the political cosmeticians forged a new image

The problem was: having been perceived as hopelessly incompetent, how should Abe be brought back to the political centre stage? What spin should they put on him?

Abe’s new image was to be articulated and forged by professional political cosmeticians (spin doctors).

To careful observers of what was going on in Japanese politics at the end of 2012, to those familiar with this whole game, Shinzō Abe and his palanquin bearers had evidently come to the following points of common understanding: No more “Cabinet of friends” (coterie of insiders that Abe had placed in his Cabinet) formed from his first term in 2006 to 2007. 

Abe’s new image was to be articulated and forged by professional political cosmeticians (spin doctors). He just had to strike a pose and talk less. 

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media upon his arrival at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on 19 August 2020. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)
Japan Prime Minister Shinzō Abe speaks to the media upon his arrival at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on 19 August 2020. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

To stabilise power, a multi-pronged package of various measures had to be launched. Dashing around blindly and the tenets of the so-called “Group of Young Diet Members for Thinking about the Future of Japan and History Education” (“Thinking Group”) alone would not help him accomplish the “great work” begun by his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi. 

So how did Abe’s retainers and political cosmeticians construct a jack-up rig of clever words for their “Young Master” and remould his image? 

Thus, in the blink of an eye, the man who rose to power again at the end of 2012 was projected as the “saviour” who would “take back Japan”.

Firstly, they came up with a compelling reason for Abe to return to prime ministership. It was pompously framed in terms of completing unfinished business from his first term — specifically, the “great work” of constitutional revision. In other words, Abe’s foremost mission was to bring to closure the postwar Conservatives’ long-standing desire to abolish the peace constitution.

Secondly, there was the notion of building Japan as a “beautiful country”. 

Thirdly, there was talk about “taking back Japan” on terms of restoring economic vigour. 

Pedestrians walk along a shopping street in the Motomachi District of Yokohama, Japan, on 16 September 2020. (Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians walk along a shopping street in the Motomachi District of Yokohama, Japan, on 16 September 2020. (Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)

“Towards a Beautiful Country” and “Take Back Japan” were, of course, pretty political slogans put out by the spin doctors for Abe to climb back to power. 

As these striking slogans covered Japan’s streets and alleys along with images of Abe’s “brimming-with-vitality” poses, the memory-deficient voters had long forgotten that Abe was still the puerile politician he was. Living in the shadow of a languishing economy and the “lost two decades”, the common folk only hoped to return to the good old days and once again enjoy the real benefits of being part of a “major economic power”. As for all that talk about the so-called “beautiful country”, it didn’t matter even if they knew it was a mirage good only for psychological satisfaction or for enticing them to march on. They had no other options anyway. Thus, in the blink of an eye, the man who rose to power again at the end of 2012 was projected as the “saviour” who would “take back Japan”. We have to admit that the political cosmeticians were successful. 

Leading Japan on “a departure from the post-war regime” (i.e., into revising its constitution) was not just the original intention with which Abe went into politics. It was also the highest mission laid upon him by the Conservative camp.

Right-leaning passion unabated 

And thus, when Shinzō Abe returned to the prime ministership at the end of 2012, his right-leaning passion was in no way weaker than it was during his first term. 

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, 26 December 2013. (Toru Hanai/File Photo/Reuters)
Japan Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (centre) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, 26 December 2013. (Toru Hanai/File Photo/Reuters)

In 2013, Abe made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister. This was something he had “very regrettably” failed to accomplish during his first term.

In 2014, the Cabinet adopted a resolution that would allow Japan’s military forces to exercise the right of collective self-defence within certain limits. Article 9 of post-war Japan’s peace constitution was thereby rendered as good as non-existent. 

...there were supposed to be only three major hurdles to clear before the constitution could be revised.

In 2015, the Legislation for Peace and Security was passed. In addition, the controversial Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (formerly dubbed the “Wiretapping Bill” by the Japanese media) came into force. The equally contentious Anti-Conspiracy Bill was passed later.

With things going at such an accelerated pace, Abe’s wish of completing the “great work” of constitutional revision by 2020 seemed to be getting somewhere, for there were supposed to be only three major hurdles to clear before the constitution could be revised. They were: (1) securing a vote of approval from two-thirds of both Houses of the National Diet respectively; (2) a popular referendum; and (3) the US. 

And, theoretically speaking, the three hurdles had ceased to be an obstruction.

Japan Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe attends a news conference following a victory in the upper house elections by his ruling coalition, at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, 11 July 2016. (Toru Hanai/File Photo/Reuters)
Japan Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzō Abe attends a news conference following a victory in the upper house elections by his ruling coalition, at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, 11 July 2016. (Toru Hanai/File Photo/Reuters)

As successive administrations led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had kept a close eye on revisions of school textbooks and inculcated in the people a narrow form of “patriotism”, the new generation of Japanese voters would only be more conservative than their fathers or grandfathers. The required national referendum was not expected to pose any hindrance at all to revising the constitution. As the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump may be an obnoxious maverick, but the so-called “pressure” he put on Tokyo to have it shape up the Japanese military forces more expeditiously was actually playing into the hands of the Japanese government. After all, this constituted the greatest guarantee to help Japan revise its constitution sooner. 

As for securing the two-thirds approval from both Houses of the National Diet, it would indeed have been very difficult to achieve in the past. 

But things had changed since the great reshuffling in Japanese politics in the 1990s, when the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) was led by its chairman Tomiichi Murayama to form a coalition government with the LDP. The JSP, once seen as the “greatest obstacle” to constitutional revision (as LDP politician and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone put it) had faded away. There were basically no progressive reformists in the Japanese political arena presently. Both the LDP and the Komeito, the best of allies in the coalition government, were constitutional revisionists in every sense of the term, needless to say. The Komeito tended to mince its words, posturing itself as keeping the LDP in check, and seemed to stand for only “additions” to the constitution, rather than outright revision. But this much was clear: what “addition” or “subtraction” could there be if not a de facto amendment to the constitution?  

Thus, when the larger-than-life Abe subsequently went on to unite a whole spectrum of politicians whose political views were really no different from his own, everything would fall into place smoothly and nicely.

As for the various political parties that grew out of the LDP (or other parties) after the great reshuffling, they also proved to be constitutional revisionists upon earnest analysis. Notable among these people were the likes of the Democratic Party of Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama (originally from the LDP), a one-time prime minister in a coalition government who sought to sell himself as a dovish leader.  

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)

With both the ruling party and the opposition being constitutional revisionists, the Japanese political ecosphere was already totally “conservatised” – or, as one might say, “LDP-ised”. Once seen as the first major hurdle on the road to constitutional revision, a vote of approval from two-thirds of each house of the National Diet was no longer hard to obtain. 

The key, then, was to decide on who would modulate the conflicts and interests of the many Conservative politicians, as well as what suitable time to do so. In this matter, the mainstream Conservatives had very high hopes for Abe, the perceived “destined one” who had made his comeback. 

The truth about “Abenomics”

Having learnt their lesson from the first Abe Cabinet, Abe’s palanquin bearers (including his retainers and think tank) strongly advised him to first stabilise his power, revive the national economy, and have the Japanese people believe that he could truly revitalise the country. Only then would the image hammered out by the political cosmeticians for Abe — the image of the “saviour” of the “beautiful country” — be convincing. Thus, when the larger-than-life Abe subsequently went on to unite a whole spectrum of politicians whose political views were really no different from his own, everything would fall into place smoothly and nicely. No wonder “Abenomics” became the most important selling point for the second Abe Cabinet. 

The most conspicuous sign was that while profits were going up for corporations, salary earners did not see a corresponding raise in their pay.

So-called Abenomics was really about printing lots of money and issuing government bonds on a massive scale, so as to bring about, in effect, a depreciation of the yen. Truth be told, this policy did indeed give the Japanese economy a spur at the beginning of its implementation. This was well attested to by the rise of the Nikkei Index from 10,000 to 15,000 within just five months after Abe regained his prime ministership. The export industry, too, got a shot in the arm from the depreciation of the yen.

Nevertheless, as shown in various polls, such artificially-induced vigour brought no sense of real benefit to the general populace. The most conspicuous sign was that while profits were going up for corporations, salary earners did not see a corresponding raise in their pay. On top of that, Japan’s consumption tax underwent repeated hikes. It became hard for the common folk to have positive feelings about Abenomics. 

Notably, another one of the stimulative tactics of Abenomics was to ease up on the conditions for travel visa approvals for foreigners, especially the Chinese. Very great in number and possessing incredible purchasing power, the Chinese were supposed to spark off a boom in sightseeing in Japan, or — as the Japanese called it — a wave of bakugai (“explosive buying”).

Passersby wearing protective face masks walk past a countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that have been postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan, 23 July 2020. (Issei Kato/Reuters)
Passersby wearing protective face masks walk past a countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that have been postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan, 23 July 2020. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

The cleverly calculated plan which Abe and his think tank had in mind went like this: first, they would have the Chinese President Xi Jinping visit their country during the cherry blossom season in April; then there would be a steady stream of incoming Chinese tourists to enrich Japan with their bakugai, as well as ensure the success of the Tokyo Olympics in July. In the wake of the successful Olympics and the national economic rejuvenation, the Japanese people were foreseen to become intoxicated with sentiments of being part of a great nation.

The ambitious Abe was to take the next step on the back of such “national awesomeness” and “economic vitality”. He would unite Japan’s politicians of every stripe in one fell swoop, discuss the affairs of the nation with them, and — once and for all — settle the matter of constitutional revision, which the likes of Nobusuke Kishi, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ichirō Ozawa (former LDP politician who went on to start various opposition parties) had been dreaming about since the early postwar years. Abe’s proclamation about completing the “great work” of constitutional revision by 2020 was obviously inseparable from the planned sequence of events outlined above.

An illusory aura of goodwill towards China 

When the Covid-19 pandemic first broke out in China at the beginning of this year, Abe urged every LDP Diet member to donate 5,000 yen (roughly S$65) in support of China, and set an example himself. The reason for this dramatic episode has to be understood within the context laid out above.

5,000 yen might be a small amount, but for Beijing on the receiving end of Trump’s relentless onslaught, a great diplomatic achievement would be scored as long as Japan, America’s most important pawn in the East, did not dance to the White House’s tune and make things difficult for China at this time. How Abe acted at this juncture was put in a good light by Beijing, not only out of diplomatic tactical considerations, but arguably also as expected for a logically and emotionally natural response.

Upon earnest analysis, however, Abe would come across as still the person he was before all such posing. There was not the slightest change to his ideas about China and history.  

...the Japanese media was constantly reminding its readers and viewers that the whole razzmatazz was but a “performance” put up by their politicians — a “show”, as it were.

Face mask-clad pedestrians wait to cross a street in Tokyo on 24 July 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
Face mask-clad pedestrians wait to cross a street in Tokyo on 24 July 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

It was in the same context that the atmosphere of friendliness got blown out of proportion in reports by the Chinese media, which had been looking forward to better ties between China and Japan. Some literary enthusiasts even rode on the wave and hyped up interest in kanji poetry, contributing to a sense of cross-national bonding, an illusory aura of goodwill. 

If we were to carefully observe and compare how the media in China and Japan have been reporting on the other side over the last 10 years, the following can hardly escape notice: 

While both countries placed much importance on speaking in one voice to their own people, the Japanese media was constantly reminding its readers and viewers that the whole razzmatazz was but a “performance” put up by their politicians — a “show”, as it were. In other words, even though monetary donations were made, and high officials spoke publicly in scintillating diplomatese (about “giving support to China with all that our country can” and so on), this would have no impact at all on how the Japanese media continued with their tradition of and proclivity for massive negative reportage on China.  

In contrast, the Chinese media, more inclined to focus on good news and speak simplistically in terms of friendliness and unfriendliness when it came to Sino-Japanese relations, lauded Abe excessively during this period. This not only failed to change the Japanese people’s perspective of China, but also added corroborations for Abe’s present image that have yet to be verified and corrected. 

On one side, it was clearly pointed out that the politicians were posing out of the necessity of “performing”. On the other side, the neighbouring country was viewed and evaluated in black-and-white terms of “friendliness” and “unfriendliness”. Between Japan and China, the disparity in how each country reported on the other was quite significant. 

Abepolitics was based on the old imperial-nation-centric view of history and never about peace.  

The importance of Abe’s contributions to constitutional revision

Let’s be frank. Whether we are talking about the first Abe Cabinet as the primal epitome of Abepolitics, or the Shinzō Abe of the latter terms who made a comeback, grew more mature, excelled at posing and stayed in office for a lengthy duration of seven years and eight months, Abe’s immense contributions in postwar Japan’s history of constitutional revision must not be underestimated. To Abe on a personal level, that he is just a short step away from actually bringing constitutional revision to pass is truly most regrettable, but in the work of destroying the peace constitution, he has dutifully done all he could as one who inherited the legacy of Nobusuke Kishi, the “Yokai of the Showa era”. 

In the annals of post-war Japan’s constitutional amendments, Abe will certainly be named alongside the late Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. At some point, together with a long-time comrade in pushing for constitutional revision, Nakasone had actually done something atypical. Along with Tsuneo Watanabe, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s chairman and editor-in-chief, he once urged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (a “rightist with no fixed opinion”, according to Ichirō Ozawa) to stop making official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Yet no one will ever call Nakasone an “old man of peace” because of this. In the same way, in the eyes of the constitution’s defenders and the civic activists who have worked so hard over the post-war decades to keep Japan from rearming itself, Abepolitics was based on the old imperial-nation-centric view of history and never about peace.  

Former Japan Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. (SPH)
Former Japan Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. (SPH)

Apart from negating the values of postwar peace education and working towards constitutional revision and military expansion, the LDP was also marked by inborn corruption. Abuse of power, epitomised by the scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen, Kake Gakuen and the cherry blossom-viewing parties, had never subsided throughout Abe’s latter terms of office. There is, in short, nothing particularly worthy of evaluation and praise about the Abe administration.  

There is one final thing to note though. In the new Cabinet that Yoshihide Suga has just put together, a political star with the same “superior political genes” as Shinzō Abe’s has come out into the open. He is the new Minister of Defence from the LDP, known for his close ties with Taiwan’s leaders, including the late Lee Teng-hui and the current President Tsai Ing-wen. Most significantly, he, Nobuo Kishi, is also Shinzō Abe’s own younger brother by blood. 

Newly appointed Japan Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi delivers a speech during a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo on 16 September 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
Newly appointed Japan Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi delivers a speech during a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Tokyo on 16 September 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

With a direct lineage going from Nobusuke Kishi to Eisaku Satō to Shinzō Abe and now to Nobuo Kishi (punctuated by the likes of the “chief butler” Takeo Fukuda), the political bloodline of the “Yokai of the Showa era” will apparently continue to exert its influence.  

When this much is clear to us, we can lay to rest the convoluted speculations about a pro-China Abe resisting the US, as well as lamentations along the lines of “we miss Abe” or “Abe is still better”.

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