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

Tobias Harris, 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 the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spread, tributes sprung from the social media accounts and websites of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, diplomats and business leaders. President Biden went so far as to order flags flown at half-mast to honor Abe, described by the president as a “proud servant of the Japanese people and a staunch friend of the United States.” It was an exceptional tribute to the deceased leader of an American ally.

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

That said, it’s important to remember the other side of Shinzo Abe: he was Japan’s most polarizing political figure for several generations, a political fighter whose commitment to his vision for the country’s future won the adoration of his friends and the opprobrium of his detractors.

Since joining Japan’s House of Representatives as a junior lawmaker in 1993, Abe has pursued controversial goals. Above all, he wanted to transform the central institutions of the post-war order introduced by the American occupation and adopted by part of the Japanese political class. He believed that these institutions – notably the education system and the 1947 constitution (drafted largely by American occupation officials) – prevented Japan from regaining its rightful place among the world’s great powers, reducing it to a “subordinate independence” to the United States.

Abe inherited this mindset from his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served in the wartime government, was imprisoned for a time as a war criminal, 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 disrupting Japan’s foreign policy, Abe and his fellow conservatives saw new opportunities to pursue this vision. They wanted to revise the constitution, strengthen the Japanese military and reform the education system, breaking the power of the left-wing teachers’ union which they said was teaching young Japanese people a “masochistic” version of Japanese history, in particular his wartime past.

This program has put Abe and his allies on a collision course with many in the political class. The Japanese left, fiercely protective of the post-war constitution, hated Abe, viewing him and the new right as militarists. But his ideas also alienated some of the older generations of 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. which was firmly allied with the United States and focused on its role as a “civilian” economic superpower.

At times, Abe’s plans have also heightened tensions with Japan’s neighbors as well as the United States. The New Right’s determination to sweep away “masochistic” history often meant downplaying or denying historical atrocities inflicted on Asian peoples or American prisoners of war. Although Abe learned to slow down or quietly abandon some of these more controversial positions by the time he returned to the post of prime minister for the second time in 2012, they nevertheless help explain why he has often inspired mistrust, even outright opposition from important parties. of the Japanese public.

It may not just be Abe’s vision for Japan that has inspired fierce opposition to his agenda. It may also be his style of politics. While postwar Japanese politics often depended on clandestine dealings—perhaps literally in smoke-filled rooms—Abe relished open political combat. He enjoyed being on the campaign trail, pounding his opponents (sometimes including media he didn’t like). In parliamentary debates, he could barely stay in his seat when he felt a speaker was out of place, and was even reprimanded for heckling other lawmakers, acceptable behavior for a backbencher. maybe, but not for a prime minister. He wanted clear victories on the backs of strong majorities, not the weak compromises that he said characterized the “post-war regime”. This acerbic policy, which Abe described in his 2006 book as the path of the “combatant politician”, has not always endeared him to his colleagues or 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 return Japan to its pre-1945 past. He was a visionary statesman who wanted to do whatever was necessary to ensure the security and prosperity of his country in the 21st century, including opening Japan to the world like never before.

But he would no doubt want to be remembered not only as a statesman, but also as a fighter for what he believed to be right, a tireless political fighter who did not shy away from struggle with his critics – and that prevailed over his often sick body and the humiliation of resigning in 2007 to pursue his vision for Japan.

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