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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Opinion | Shinzo Abe was the most polarizing Japanese political figure of his time

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Tobias Harris, a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, is the author of “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan.”

As news of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination spread, tributes gushed forth from the social media accounts and websites of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, diplomats and business leaders. President Biden went so far as to order that flags be flown at half-staff to honor Abe, described by the president as a “proud servant of the Japanese people and a faithful friend to the United States.” It was an exceptional tribute to the deceased leader of a U.S. ally.

These tributes attest to Abe’s status as a global statesman who, during his second administration (2012-2020), took 81 overseas trips as he worked to strengthen Japan’s ties not only with its ally the United States but with friendly countries in Asia and farther afield. His tireless travels raised Japan’s international profile and enabled it to play a greater leadership role in promoting regional security, trade and development.

All that said, it is important to recall the other side of Shinzo Abe: He was the most polarizing Japanese political figure in several generations, a political battler whose commitment to his vision of the country’s future invited the adoration of his friends and the opprobrium of his critics.

From his arrival in Japan’s House of Representatives as a junior lawmaker in 1993, Abe pursued controversial goals. Above all else, he wanted to transform core institutions of the postwar order introduced by the U.S. occupation and embraced by a portion of Japan’s political class. He believed that these institutions – most notably, the education system and the 1947 constitution (written largely by U.S. occupation officials) – prevented Japan from retaking its rightful place among the world’s great powers, reducing it to “subordinate independence” on the United States.

Abe inherited this mind-set from his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served in the wartime government, was jailed for a time as a war criminal and then returned to politics in the 1950s determined to restore Japan’s full independence as a member of the “free world.” With the end of the Cold War unsettling Japan’s foreign policy, Abe and his fellow conservatives saw new opportunities to pursue this vision. They wanted to revise the constitution, strengthen Japan’s military and reform the education system, breaking the power of the left-wing teachers union that they believed taught young Japanese a “masochistic” version of Japan’s history, particularly its wartime past.

This agenda put Abe and his allies on a collision course with many members of the political class. The Japanese left, fiercely protective of the postwar constitution, hated Abe, seeing him and the New Right as militarists. But his ideas also alienated some of the older generations in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), many of whom had experienced the war and were attached to postwar prime minister Shigeru Yoshida’s vision of a lightly armed Japan that was firmly allied with the United States and focused on its role as a “civilian” economic superpower.

At times, Abe’s plans also increased tensions with Japan’s neighbors as well as with the United States. The New Right’s determination to sweep aside “masochistic” history often meant downplaying or denying historical atrocities inflicted on Asian peoples or American prisoners of war. While Abe learned to soft-pedal or quietly drop some of these more controversial positions by the time he returned to the premiership for a second time in 2012, they nevertheless help to explain why he often inspired distrust, if not outright opposition, from significant portions of the Japanese public.

It may not only have been Abe’s vision for Japan that inspired fierce opposition to his agenda. It may also have been his style of politics. While postwar Japanese politics often depended on backroom dealing — perhaps literally in smoke-filled rooms — Abe relished open political combat. He enjoyed being on the campaign trail, hammering his opponents (including at times media outlets he disliked). In parliamentary debates, he could barely stay in his seat when he felt a questioner was out of line, and was even chided for heckling other lawmakers, acceptable behavior for a backbencher perhaps but not for a prime minister. He wanted clear victories on the back of strong majorities, not the weak compromises that he felt characterized the “postwar regime.” This sharp-elbowed politics, what Abe described in his 2006 book as the way of the “fighting politician,” did not always endear him to his colleagues or to the public.

None of this is to say that the tributes from world leaders are undeserved. Despite his admiration for his grandfather, he was not a crypto-fascist eager to take Japan back to its pre-1945 past. He was a visionary statesman who wanted to do whatever was necessary to keep his country safe and prosperous in the 21st century, including opening Japan to the world as never before.

But he would undoubtedly want to be remembered not just as a statesman but also as a fighter for what he believed was right, a tireless political combatant who did not shy away from battles with his detractors — and who prevailed over his often-ailing body and the humiliation of his 2007 resignation to pursue his vision for Japan.

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