Abe’s “normal” Japan

Much has been written in the mainstream press over the last few weeks about Japan’s newly elected prime minister Abe Shinzo, routinely painted as an “unknown quantity,” an “enigmatic” character with “vague policy goals and a sober demeanor” whose “ambiguity” makes him a “tough politician to label” [1,2,3]. Oft-cited are his “conservative” positions on issues such as reform of Japan’s pacifist constitution and revision of history textbooks, his “hard line stance” vis-a-vis the “North Korean threat,” and his “ambitious vision” to push for a more equal military alliance with the United States [4,5,6]. The Washington Post goes so far as to refer to him admiringly as “Japan’s prodigal samurai returned,” and Mainichi Shimbun, remarking on his political lineage – which includes a foreign minister father and prime minister grandfather – notes that “the country’s top post is almost a birthright” [7].

The depth and style of mainstream reporting on Japan’s new prime minister, however, particularly in Western and Japanese media, leaves much of relevance conveniently out of the picture. While reference is nominally made to accusations of Abe’s “right-wing,” “nationalistic” posture, terms which in any case, without necessary context, reveal precious little of substance, these are commonly couched within the narrative of a “fighting politician” with a “vision of pride,” striving to build a “beautiful country” against a backdrop of North Korean kidnappers and a growing Chinese superpower. One may as such be forgiven for wondering why Abe’s critics single him out as being “dangerous”; as he himself has said, in response to questions regarding his view of Japanese history: “You refer to me as rather nationalistic, but I say that the person who is not patriotic cannot be the leader of his country” [6]. Brian Walsh, writing in Time, notes that, to Abe’s supporters,

“the aggressive attitude that critics … find alarming is just part of Abe’s effort to help Japan become a “normal nation,” free to act confidently on the global stage. How you view Abe depends on what you think normal means for Japan” [1].

This image of a “normal” Japan, intertwined – deliberately so – with emotionally-charged concepts of “pride” and “confidence,” manipulated in the interest of advancing an agenda of militaristic foreign policy, forms an integral part of Abe’s political platform. As noted in a Japan Times editorial:

“He views with disdain the core part of the Preamble of the [Japanese] Constitution, which sets forth Japan’s determination to ‘preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving people of the world.’ He calls it a degrading ‘signed deed of apology (wabi jomon)’ from Japan to the Allied Powers” [8].

It is no great secret that, to Abe and his supporters, the benchmark “normal” country is, militarily, the very state which demanded this apology, the United States of America. Plans recently unveiled by Abe, reported by Agence France Presse, “to centralize power and turn his office into a sort of White House,” with the purported aim “to quicken response in a crisis and better coordinate with Washington,” are thus, however ominous, equally unsurprising [9]. Much of this “coordination” revolves on plans to revise Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which states, in no uncertain terms, that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized” [10]. One would be hard-pressed to find a more forthright renunciation of state militarism in all its forms.

Yet while the media gaze rarely delves deeper, Article 9, whose wording would seem to be airtight, and the Constitution within which it appears (the “Kempo”), is not the only document of relevance, and is in practice – particularly since the Koizumi era – customarily circumvented via the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty (the “Ampo”); the (patently unconstitutional) dispatch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq plainly evidences this fact. Consultative discussions between the U.S. and Japan in October of 2005 set the ball rolling for further “force posture realignment,” a process that, while affecting “the entire spectrum of bilateral cooperation” [11] – including, critically, deepening cooperation in the area of missile defence [12] – was subject to no public debate, to no referendum, indeed to no consultation of any kind. Emilie Guyonnet, writing in Le Monde diplomatique, notes that, in exchange for the shared use of certain formerly U.S.-run bases in the Tokyo area,

“the SDF will be ‘transformed into a joint operations posture’. Its role and mandate were not precisely defined in the report but no longer appear to be restricted to the defence of Japanese territory, to which the SDF is currently bound. Therein lies the subtlety of an agreement that is sufficiently imprecise and unrestrictive for the contracting parties to interpret it as they will” [13].

Thus whereas Abe has claimed that he would “like to draft a new constitution with [his] own hands,” [1] the reality is that – as he surely well knows – there are no shortage of other options available. Gavan McCormack recently summed up the situation in a roundtable discussion: “Japan is slated to become the Great Britain of East Asia, irrespective of whatever may or may not be done to the constitution” [14].

It is seen within this context of overarching American influence that Abe’s vision of a “normal” Japan betrays its true intent. Just as the U.S. administration ignores protest at home in order to pursue an aggressive, costly, and illegal war in Iraq, so too is the Abe camp, largely without public support – and in important areas without even their knowledge – angling to “strengthen” the Japanese military in preparation for similar ventures abroad. So too do both sets of leaders boast a similar disdain for any sense of universal moral principles. Abe’s claim to fame, featured prominantly in a recent Time article and covered extensively by the Japanese press, is seen as his “firm,” “hard line” position on the issue of the abductions of a group of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents in the period between 1977 and 1983. As Walsh describes it:

“Abe had been active on the abductee issue since the late 1980s, and he arranged meetings for [the family of one the abductees] with high-level officials and kept the couple personally updated on Tokyo’s progress. But what mattered most … was the sense that Abe truly cared” [1].

This public perception of a caring and courageous statesman “fighting for us” – greatly amplified by media attention lavished on the abduction issue – attracted much-needed popularity to a formerly little-known politician. Yet as Gavan McCormack and Wada Haruki point out:

“[T]he mainstream media failed to mention that during the colonial era Japan had abducted hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work as prostitutes (‘comfort women’) for Japanese soldiers or to work in mines, factories, and low-ranking jobs in the Japanese military such as guarding Western prisoners during World War II. Viewed in this larger historical context, by Koreans north and south, the transformation of the obviously criminal abductions of thirteen Japanese citizens into the crime of the century and the Japanese into the ultimate victims of Asian brutality had a painful air of unreality” [15].

The situation was greatly exacerbated in October 2002 when, in an act of sheer hypocrisy, the Japanese government demanded compensation from North Korea for the abductions – itself having refused compensation to the victims of the colonial era. An agreement to allow five surviving abductees to “temporarily return” for one or two weeks was broken by the Japanese, who made the decision, before the five had even set foot on Japanese soil, not to follow through on their part of the deal. As Japan pressured North Korea for further concessions, the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea and Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, represented in government by Abe and his supporters, issued a statement that Japan should “wait until the North Koreans can no longer endure” [16]. In words that echo those of the former U.S. Embassador to the United Nations Madeine Albright, who, probed on the “cost” of the sanctions against Iraq that had resulted in deaths of over 500,000 children, remarked that “we think the price was worth it,” Abe Shinzo stood “firm” against North Korea, declaring: “In Japan, there is food and there is oil, and since North Korea cannot survive the winter without them, it will crack before too long” [15]. Abe was proven wrong, and a prolonged stalemate ensued in which the Japanese government repeatedly played its key bargaining chips – freezing humanitarian aid and threating sanctions – to little success.

In light of the above, one might reflect further on the background of the “enigma” that is Abe Shinzo. As Wallace notes in the Los Angeles Times:

“To understand Abe … you must understand his relationship with Nobusuke Kishi, his maternal grandfather, who died in 1987 and was once prime minister.”

Indeed, Kishi is commonly presented as an example of the image of the “fighting statesman” to which Abe aspires: “the minority of politicians willing to take an unpopular stand and stick to their convictions” [3]. Putting aside the dubious merit of an elected politician taking an “unpopular stand” in a so-called “democracy” – Kishi was widely distrusted by the Japanese public and ultimately resigned amid massive protests – it is relevant to ask what types of “convictions” Abe’s grandfather actually held.

Although talk of Kishi normally begins with his stint as prime minister between 1957 and 1960, he in fact first rose to prominance in the midst of World War II, winning a seat in the Yokusan [All-Out National Support] “elections” of 1942. Wakamiya Yoshibumi, deputy managing editor of the Asahi Shimbun, describes Kishi as “the epitome of Japan’s prewar and postwar political ‘continuity’ – Japan’s failure, in other words, to perform a thorough political housecleaning after the war”:

“Before the war, Kishi was a career bureaucrat in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry; soon after its foundation, he was sent to Manchukuo, where he controlled the country’s development from a top-ranking official’s desk; he was directly involved in the opening of hostilities in the Pacific in the Tojo cabinet … Yet not only was Kishi exonerated of all blame for his role after Japan’s defeat, he also had the unbelievable luck to climb all the way to the top of the greasy pole while his erstwhile colleagues looked on in blank amazement” [17, p. 49-50].

Mainichi Shimbun describes this transition from class-A war criminal back to government office with a depth of analysis indicative of the Japanese press on this issue. Noting that Kishi “was banned from taking office because of the suspicion of war crimes,” the paper recounts that “the ban was lifted in 1952. The following year, he became a Dietman for the first time and was prime minister four years later in a meteoric rise even faster than his grandson’s almost 50 years later” [7]. No reference is made to the extensive documented records of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), declassified in 2002 after decades of attempts at a cover-up, recounting Kishi’s direct involvement in the forcible abduction and transportation to Japan of thousands of Chinese workers in the midst of the war [18]. As William Underwood describes it in Japan Focus, the government was first approached by corporate Japan with the idea of importing Chinese workers in 1939:

“As Japan’s domestic heavy labor shortage became increasingly critical, the state turned this corporate vision into administrative reality in two steps: the November 1942 ‘cabinet resolution’ that led to the trial introduction of 1,411 laborers beginning in April 1943; and the February 1944 ‘vice-ministers’ resolution’ that led to the full importation phase beginning in March 1944. Kishi authorized both measures, first as Minister of Commerce and Industry and later as Vice-Minister of Munitions; both portfolios included extensive oversight of forced labor operations” [19].

The released report lists the names of 38,935 Chinese workers (estimates of the actual total number of workers ranges in the hundreds of thousands), of which 6,830 died under conditions of harsh forced labour [18]. That Kishi was released from prison despite these war crimes, by direct command from the Intelligence Section of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces (SCAP), was “not unrelated to the ongoing cold war, and that subsequently Kishi as a postwar political leader maintained a consistently pro-American stance” [17, p. 57].

Ten years after the war, in response to a changing political climate initiated by the reunification of the Japan Socialist Party in October 1955, the U.S. government made moves to alter the balance of powers. Richard Samuels explains:

“[W]ith then Democratic Party Secretary-General Kishi Nobusuke present, [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles told Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru that the U.S. has a strong interest in the consolidation of the conservative camp… Dulles reportedly told the Shigemitsu camp that … the U.S. government was constantly getting requests for financial assistance, and that it found it difficult to respond. ‘If, however,’ he reportedly said, ‘the Japanese government can unify, we will certainly be in a position to help even more than we have (to date).’ Dulles explained that the United States wanted a strong Japan to help it contain communism and clearly thought that a strong Japan required a unified center-right political organization.”

Kishi’s “meteoric rise” was highly dependent on his being able to capitalize on extensive connections to corporate networks within Japan in order to consolidate the conservative camp. The extended period during which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was dominant (1955-1993), heavily influenced by Kishi’s corporate ties and known as the “1955 System,” was corrupt to its core from the very beginning. Samuels writes that “it was Kishi who opened the door to alternative sources of political funds and who originated the most sophisticated money laundering operation in Japanese politics” [20]. Yet despite receiving massive “donations” via CIA-backed “private” American supporters, estimates for which range as high as $10 million annually between 1958 and 1960, Kishi was only able to hold on to power through one election (1958) before protests erupded, some numbering in the hundreds of thousands, at which point, Michael Schaller writes, “the United States withdrew its support from Kishi – who now seemed like damaged goods” [21]. Humiliated, Kishi finally resigned, but not before making use of hundreds of millions of yen – very likely payed for by a slush fund (the “M-Fund”) originating in black market operations and sales of confiscated property plundered during the war years [22] – in order to mobilize a violent anti-left army to put down, as he described it, the “distasteful, insignificant demonstration[s]” [23].

Reviewing the record of Abe Shinzo’s “statesman” grandfather reveals much about the personal motivations of Japan’s new prime minister. In a rarely noted parallel to Abe’s current push for “history textbook revision” – meaning in practice the silencing of dissenting voices within the education system – the government his grandfather headed, concerned “that the teachers were too sympathetic to communism,” introduced “legislation to force public schools to provide moral education and to implement a system to evaluate the teachers” [20]. It is not at all hard to see why it is in the best interests of a family so intimately connected with corruption and war crimes to hide from the general public the highly well-documented historical record.

A dramatic demonstration of the “continuity” between generations in attempting to supress this record was revealed in January, 2005, in an article published by Asahi Shimbun. Honda Masakazu and Takada Makoto broke the news that Abe and his close associate Nakagawa Shoichi, at the time minister for economy, trade, and industry in the LDP government – both prominent members of the “Association to Consider the Future Path for Japan and History Education” – intervened to manipulate the content of a film about the system of sexual slavery implemented by the Japanese army in the 1930s and 1940s [24]. As McCormack recounts, the film, scheduled to be broadcast in January 2001 by NHK, Japan’s influential public broadcaster, and featuring proceedings of a civil tribunal convened in Tokyo a month earlier, was subjected to a series of last-minute changes “in a state of semi-siege, as rightists mobilized and sound trucks circled the NHK building blaring hostile messages and employees were jostled and abused as they entered or left the premises”:

“[J]ust days before the film was shown, a meeting was held between senior executives of NHK and two prominent politicians [Abe and Nakagawa] … major changes were then made, adding new material while cutting the 44 minute film to 40 minutes. All reference to the emperor’s responsibility was deleted … the testimony of the former ‘comfort women’ witnesses was much reduced, the space for hostile comment on the tribunal increased” [25].

Despite such political intervention in media being forbidden by both Article 21 (“No censorship shall be maintained”) of the Japanese Constitution [10] and Article 3 (“Broadcast programs shall never be interfered with or regulated by any person”) of the Broadcasting Law [26], when confronted by the evidence, Abe was remarkably frank: “I found out that the contents were clearly biased and told [NHK] that it should be broadcast from a fair and neutral viewpoint, as it is expected to” [27]. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media by and large did not pursue the issue, leaving Abe – having openly violated the constitutional and legal basis for “free” expression in Japan – to go on with his political career, unscathed.

Abe’s defiance is representative of a new strategy employed by corporate Japan, summarized in a recent article in The Economist on the refusal of Japan’s largest corporation – a key ally in the battle for “historical revision” – to compensate wartime slave labour:

“Mitsubishi’s brazen defence broke new ground… It questioned whether Japan had even invaded China, preferring to leave that difficult question to future historians. It denied the company had used forced labour – even though Mitsubishi built and operated a notorious fleet of ‘hell ships’ that brought victims in the cargo hold to Japan. And it asked the court to see through to the plaintiff’s political motives: to fall for these would be to produce a ‘mistaken burden of the soul’ for future generations of Japanese” [28].

Abe’s “pride” in Japan, much played up by the ever-servile corporate media, is one which seeks to expel this politically inconvenient “burden of the soul,” a burden which, one might note, has been carried for generations by millions of former slaves across Asia – victims of the Japanese imperial war effort – who lack the good fortune of having friends in Mitsubishi to fight for a “neutral viewpoint.”

Abe is not an “enigma” – nor is his vision for Japan in any way “normal” – to anyone who has surveyed even a fraction of the evidence mounted against the historical legacy of which he is a product. Let us hope that the Japanese public come to this realization before their new leader makes his “vision” a reality.


[1] Brian Walsh, “The Abe Enigma,” Time: Asia Edition, Sept. 11, 2006.

[2] Hans Greimel, “Japan’s Abe: an enigma wrapped in a shadow,” The Seattle Times, Sept. 25, 2006.

[3] Bruce Wallace, “Japan Sees Genes of a Leader in a Grandson,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 19, 2006.

[4] Reiji Yoshida, “Abe looking to beef up defense posture,” Japan Times, Sept. 7, 2006.

[5] Norimitsu Onishi, “Japan’s Likely Next Premier in Hawkish Stand,” The New York Times, Sept. 2, 2006.

[6] Anthony Faiola, “Japan’s Abe, Poised to Lead, Offers Nation Vision of Pride,” The Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2006.

[7] “Abe was born to become a prime minister,” Mainichi Daily News, Sept. 21, 2006.

[8] “Mr. Abe’s worrisome plan for Japan,” Japan Times, Sept. 21, 2006.

[9] Kyoko Hasegawa, “Japan’s Abe seeks White House style administration,” Agence France Presse, Sept. 22, 2006.

[10] Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan, 1946.

[11] U.S.-Japan Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA), Oct. 29, 2005.

[12] “Committing to U.S. strategy,” Japan Times, May 5, 2006.

[13] Emilie Guyonnet, “Japanese military ambitions,” Le Monde diplomatique, April 2006.

[14] John Junkerman and Gavan McCormack, “Japan’s Political and Constitutional Crossroads,” ZNet, July 31, 2006.

[15] Gavan McCormack and Wada Haruki, “The Strange Record of 15 Years of Japan-North Korea Negotiations,” Japan Focus, Sept. 2, 2005.

[16] Wada Haruki, “Recovering a Lost Opportunity: Japan-North Korea Negotiations in the Wake of the Iraqi War,” Sekai (translated by Mark Caprio for Japan Focus), May 3, 2003.

[17] Wakamiya Yoshibumi, “The Postwar Conservative View of Asia: How the Political Right Has Delayed Japan’s Coming to Terms With its History of Agression in Asia,” LTCB International Library Foundation, Asahi Shimbun Publishing Company, 1999.

[18] William Underwood, “NHK’s Finest Hour: Japan’s Official Record of Chinese Forced Labor,” Japan Focus, Aug. 8, 2006.

[19] William Underwood, “The Japanese Court, Mitsubishi and Corporate Resistance to Chinese Forced Labor Redress,” Japan Focus, March 29, 2006.

[20] Richard J. Samuels, “Kishi and Corruption: An Anatomy of the 1955 System,” Japan Policy Research Institute Working Paper No. 83, Dec. 2001.

[21] Michael Schaller, “America’s favorite War Criminal: Kishi Nobusuke and the Transformation of U.S.-Japan Relations,” in Japan Policy Research Institute Working Paper No. 11, July 1995.

[22] Chalmers Johnson, “The 1955 System and the American Connection: A Bibliographic Introduction,” in Japan Policy Research Institute Working Paper No. 11, July 1995.

[23] “Bonus to Be Wisely Spent,” Time, Jan. 25, 1960.

[24] Honda Masakazu and Takada Makoto, “LDP pressure led to cuts in NHK show,” Asahi shimbun, Jan. 12, 2005.

[25] Gavan McCormack, “War and Japan’s Memory Wars,” ZNet, January 29, 2005.

[26] Article 3 of the Broadcast Law, May 2, 1950.

[27] “NHK censored TV show due to political pressure,” Japan Times, Jan. 14, 2005.

[28] “Slave wages: The long fight for compensation for wartime slave labour,” The Economist, March 30, 2006.

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