Abe Rears Japan's Ugly Nationalist Head

Abe Rears Japan's Ugly Nationalist Head
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In his first four months in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had not made a false move -- until now. He and his government waded knee-deep into historical revisionism and right-wing ultranationalism, drawing the first real criticism of his new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since it won a landslide election in December.

In late April, when Asians pay respects to the dead, four members of the cabinet, led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and more than 150 members of parliament, made a pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. It honors the spirits of the Japanese war dead, but also includes those of 14 Class-A war criminals condemned and executed for plotting to invade neighboring countries during World War II.

Abe was not among the visitors, but his statements in defense of their visit were perhaps more bellicose than they had to be. “My ministers will not yield to any kind of intimidation," he told parliament defiantly. It is natural, he said, to express respect to those who have died for their county. He donated a tree as a personal offering.

The visits were condemned not just by South Korea and China, as one might expect, but also from opinion leaders in the United State and abroad. Both the Washington Post and New York Times denounced the visits, especially as they came at a sensitive time when relations with between Japan and its neighbors are strained and North Korea is making threats.

Washington made no official protest itself, but can hardly be pleased with this sudden shift toward Japanese nationalism. Its desire to bring Seoul and Tokyo closer together to form a united front against North Korean provocations is constantly undercut by these unnecessary and controversial pilgrimages to the shrine.

The last time the Yasukuni roiled relations with neighbors was during the long (by Japanese standards) administration of Junichiro Koizumi, who made annual visits to the shrine in his official capacity. Ironically it was his successor, Abe, who restored relations and goodwill with China by declining to visit the shrine, something he now says he deeply regrets.

The Yasukuni Shrine has long been connected with state Shinto and an ultranationalist and inflammatory interpretation of Japan’s actions in World War II as being a wholly selfless effort to liberate Asia of European colonialism. Needless to say, other countries occupied by Japan don’t see things that way.

During the first months of his administration, Abe successfully suppressed what the Financial Times called in an editorial his hidden “inner nationalism.” His plan was to concentrate laser-like on economic revival building up popularity, well aware that his unpopular focus on history and the constitution had undercut his government and led to his resignation after only one year in office in 2007.

It may be that his government’s continuing popularity as expressed in public opinion polls that show that more than 70 percent of Japanese approve of his initial moves to revive the economy, called “Abenomics,” may be going to his head and that he, to again quote the Financial Times, “let the mask slip.”

The general election for half of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament scheduled for July, was also said to exert some restraint, as Abe is very keen on winning. But the government seems to believe more and more that the election is in the bag. The recent landslide election of the LDP candidate in an upper house by-election on April 28 seems to support that notion.


On that same day, the government held what was billed as the first “National Sovereignty Day.” The date was said to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952, which restored Japan sovereignty and ended the American Occupation (save for Okinawa, which was returned only in 1972.)

Speaking in the presence of the Emperor and Empress, Abe said, “the next task for us is to revise the Constitution.” That goal called attention to another conservative obsession, revising the constitution that was written by Americans during the Occupation. It seemed to have lot to do with the elevation of the date, April 28, which previously had no special meaning to most Japanese.

Amending or abolishing the current constitution in favor of a new one has been a hobby horse of Japanese conservatives, including Abe, for years. They say that it is humiliating to be governed under a document written mainly by foreign occupiers. The extreme nationalist Shintaro Ishihara says he would have ditched the whole thing as soon as Japan was free to do so.

Ishihara is not a fringe figure. He is the co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party, which with 51 seats is the third largest bloc in the lower house of parliament. The other co-leader, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, shares his feelings about changing the charter.

Abe has already had meeting with leaders of this party and the two could easily put together the two-thirds majority needed to change the document (whether the two-thirds could be mustered in the upper house even after an electoral victory is debatable.) Their first move will be to change the rule to allow a simple majority enough to approve amendments subject to a national plebiscite.

Although most attention is focused on repealing or altering the famous “no war” Article 9, the LDP’s proposed alternative charter, made public a year ago even before the general election, goes much further in replacing what it terms foreign universal values with more traditional Japanese values, as they view them.

Many will be watching what the new government does in August, the traditional time linked to Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, when Japanese leaders make official visits to the Yasukuni shrine if in fact they are going to make them. Whether they make the visits may depend on how the Japanese public reacts to this recent testing of the political waters.

At the moment there are no current public opinion polls to test the public reaction (though much commentary on Sunday talks shows was negative). One thing is fairly certain: The Abe administration will be more strongly influenced by local opinion than that of its neighbors. 

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