Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated Friday in the city of Nara. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe has twice held Japan’s highest elective office: the first time, for a year, from 2006, and the second time between 2012 and 2020. Abe comes from a political family prominent – her father had been foreign minister, and her grandfather had been prime minister in the late 1950s after avoiding war crimes charges – and remained one of the most powerful politicians in the country even after leaving office, in 2020. As prime minister, Abe sought to reestablish Japan as a forceful presence in international affairs, and his policy to revive the Japanese economy became known as Abenomics. He failed, however, in his efforts to revise Japan’s constitution to allow the country to conduct non-defensive military actions overseas. Abe has enjoyed strong relations with a number of world leaders, including Donald Trump and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but relations in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly with South Korea, have been strained by the Abe’s reluctance to fully acknowledge Japan’s heinous behavior during the war. World War II.
After Abe died, I spoke by phone with Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in modern Japan and Korea. She was in Tokyo when we spoke. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Abe’s World War II revisionism, his complicated feelings about America, and why his efforts to reforming the Japanese constitution ultimately failed.
How do you see Abe’s legacy?
He was a prime minister who reconfigured Japan’s place in East Asia, or at least tried to. He tried to create a more assertive Japan through a very proactive attempt – as he liked to describe it – at diplomacy. And he traveled a lot. He met Vladimir Putin more than any other world leader: more than twenty times. He met Xi Jinping, and he was the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump after [Trump] became president. Abe, however, created a deep wedge between Japan and its Asian neighbors because of his extremely warmongering view, his extremist positions on the legacy of the Japanese empire, and his responsibility for atrocities committed throughout Asia. and the Pacific. While many tout him as a great leader, his personal vision of rewriting Japanese history from a glorious past has created a real problem in East Asia that will persist, as he not only divided the diplomatic approach of the various countries with Japan; it also further divided Japanese society on how to approach its own responsibility for war actions carried out in the Emperor’s name.
You used the phrase “rewrite history”. Do you mean rewrite the truth, or do you mean rewrite the way people in Japan understood their history? How far did Abe, when he first took office in 2006, deviate from Japan’s understanding of its own history? And to what extent was that more of the status quo, but just in a more aggressive way?
What is useful in the study of Abe is that he himself published several articles and books, and that he gave many speeches on the history and on his vision of the history of the Japan, in particular. When he first became a parliamentarian in the early 1990s, inheriting his father’s seat, he was part of a study group within parliament that allegedly drafted a document denying the Nanjing Massacre. This article was available in the archives of the Japanese Diet. He’s no longer traceable, but he was there. Abe began in the mid-1990s, when there was an effort to socially reorient Japan’s wartime role in Asia, following the death of Emperor Hirohito, following the appearance of the first ” comfort women. It was then that Japanese political leaders really made the positioning of their own parties’ views on Japan’s role in Asia more public, in a new and more strident way that sought to rewrite how Japan and the Japanese should see it.
Fast forward to his first term as Prime Minister, in 2006. By that time, these issues had been much better academically and socially studied in Japan and around the world. Abe made a big effort, in 2006 and 2007, to deny that Japan bore any state responsibility for comfort women, in particular. And he failed in this attempt. It was then that he and his supporters ran a full-page ad in the Washington Job. And it came as a real shock to him when the US Congress passed a non-binding House resolution calling on Japan to atone for its role in creating the comfort women system. It was also at this time that he first quit because of his ulcerative colitis.
But, between 1994 and 2006, his main lobbying group, called the Nippon Kaigi, was created – this political lobbying group didn’t have much of a public face, but it emerged as an ideologically extremely powerful group. And that’s why comparing him to Trump and [India’s Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and other extremists – or people with extreme views or people who express extreme views – is appropriate, as these groups seem to come out of nowhere for many of us. Like, who was Steve Bannon until there was Steve Bannon? Abe, in this interim between being a junior parliamentarian and becoming Prime Minister, had become the leader of this group’s history and territory. And, at that time, he also published a book on how to make Japan great again, which he titled “Towards a Beautiful Country.”
I just wanted to follow up on the Nanjing Massacre. Americans may know this as the Rape of Nanjing, when in 1937 Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese and raped tens of thousands. And there have been efforts in Japan to deny all of this. What exactly was Abe arguing about?
He argued several aspects of this in different places – in particular that much of it was an invention, that much of it was an effort by China to smear Japan, that in fact far from the number of people allegedly massacred, and that in many cases it was the Chinese soldiers who were targeting the Japanese. And so it’s really that kind of Holocaust denial.
He is a departure in that he was part of the backlash of the early to mid-1990s against many Japanese leaders, even those in Abe’s own party, publicly beginning to accept Japan’s responsibility for the atrocities sponsored by the state. This, in particular, because in Japan, until the death of Emperor Hirohito, in 1989, it was not possible for a civil servant, let alone an academic, to discuss publicly the role of the emperor and whether the emperor himself, or Japan on behalf of the emperor, bore responsibility for these atrocities. And the burning issues are Nanjing and the Comfort Women and Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.
After Abe came to power in 2012, efforts were made to further apologize for Japan’s wartime behavior, with some American pressure, probably because the United States wanted to unite Asian countries. around opposition to China, and Japan’s wartime record was a stumbling block. Were these Abe moves sincere or substantial?
It would not be possible for me to judge the sincerity of someone’s apology. However, what is possible to judge is what Abe’s study group continued to do with him as a manager. In particular, as soon as he came to power for the second time, in 2012, the group opened a cabinet-level investigation into what is known as Kono’s statement that Japan’s own party-led government of Abe, had posted to apologize for the comfort women issue, in 1993. Abe ordered an investigation into how this statement came about. And it really sparked a more public debate among Japanese scholars, Korean scholars, Chinese scholars and all their supporters, but more importantly the victims said, “Wait a minute, is Japan going to cancel the excuses he has already made? ?”
Abe would say things like “Well, I stand by the positions of the Japanese government”, about war anniversaries, etc. And yet, at the same time, his own government was not just cutting back but hollowing out what was already on the books, especially Kono’s statement. So it was during Abe’s second term in the 1920s that we witnessed, for example, a sustained effort by the government to pressure publishers to remove passages about atrocities by the Japanese army and Japanese soldiers during World War II, especially on the mainland. in Asia, and also how Japanese efforts should be remembered at the archival level, how Japanese efforts against the Allies should be taught, and how battles that were lost should be rethought, for example.
When he was invited to address a joint session of the United States Congress in April 2015, he delivered a speech that everyone stood to their feet and applauded. And yet, the battles he remembered were largely battles that Japan had won against America or were considered a draw. And the Americans recognized that was what he was talking about. Then, in August of that year, Abe explained how Japan’s efforts in 1904 and 1905, when Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, gave hope to oppressed people around the world. Well, it was war that led to the colonization of Korea, so the speech was a direct slap in the face to Korea. And so, at every step, when it looked like Abe was somehow acknowledging that Japan had done these acts, he was actually using words that made it clear that he was absolving the country of any responsibility or feeling that he would accept responsibility for the atrocities committed and the things that continue to fuel the so-called historic problems in the region.