Abe’s Historical Perspective
An attempt at bringing Japan out of the postwar regime in terms of national security issues will inevitably require the country to address the issue of its historical view, sparking a national debate on modern history.
In this context, Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is a manifest of his determination to accomplish his final goal. He needs to unite at least his conservative allies and supporters within Japanese political circles amid domestic and foreign opposition.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The most important question to come out of his visit to the shrine is whether Abe really thinks that Japan’s wartime leaders, such as Hideki Tojo and Abe’s own grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a Class A war crimes suspect by order of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, did the wrong thing or not during the war.
It is apparent that Abe believes they were innocent. His book Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision For Japan, published in 2006, is revealing on this and other aspects of the prime minister’s thinking.
In the book, he says that Japanese war-time leaders bore the greatest share of responsibility, but pointed out that the majority of the public also supported the military strongly. He cited as an example of this strong public support, major newspapers that fed the war frenzy with front-page headlines like “(We) Should Fight Adamantly.” He also notes that Class A war criminals were brought before the Tokyo Trials on charges of “crimes against peace” and “crimes against humanity,” based on concepts formed after the war, questioning the legitimacy of the trials. He goes on to note that Japanese domestic laws do not deal with Tojo et al as criminals; indeed, the government continued to pay their pensions after the war.
In this book, Abe quotes Father Bruno Bitter, representative of the Roman Curia, who, when asked by the supreme commander of the U.S. occupying force how to deal with Yasukuni Shrine, said, “Any nation has the right and obligation to pay tributes to the warriors who died for the nation.” Abe also makes the Arlington cemetery comparison, as he has done recently.
Of course, Abe is on record repeatedly defending Japan’s conduct before and during World War II. On April 23 last year, Abe even told the Diet that he does not believe Japan’s occupation of other Asian countries during the war can be considered “invasions.” According to Abe, that’s because there are no set international or academic definitions of the word “invasion.” He claimed, “It depends on the point of view of individual countries.” He later retracted his remark after his hawkish stance was criticized by China and South Korea, saying “I never say Japan did not invade.” An editorial in The New York Times titled “Japan’s Unnecessary Nationalism” was critical: “…it seems especially foolhardy for Japan to inflame hostilities with China and South Korea when all countries need to be working cooperatively to resolve the problems with North Korea and its nuclear program.”
Abe’s historical revisionism, combined with Japan’s military buildup, will continue to cause needless friction with China and South Korea. However, Russia and the U.S. may also grow worried that Abe’s approach will further shake the foundations of the postwar order. Russia’s concerns likely center on the disputed islands, called the Southern Kurils by the Russians and the Northern Territories by the Japanese, which it claims it acquired legitimately as a result of the war.
What kind of relations does Abe want with the U.S., Japan’s closest ally? Here, his views are very shaped by his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi.
Although this is not widely known outside Japan, Kishi sought an independent approach when it came to relations with the U.S., especially around the time the two nations revised the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960. Ukeru Magosaki, Japan’s former ambassador to Iran and Uzbekistan, told The Diplomat that Kishi was a politician who sought diplomatic independence, rather than one willing to accept diplomatic subservience to Washington.
Abe praised Kishi’s approach in his book Towards a Beautiful Country, saying “Grandfather at that time tried to fulfill the requirements of an independent nation by changing this unilateral treaty into a more equal one. Looking back, [Kishi] took a very realistic approach of strengthening U.S.-Japan ties to realize Japan’s independence.”
Now Abe is trying to do the same. He wants to enhance Japan’s role in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty by authorizing the use of the right to collective self-defense so as to contribute to U.S. global strategy. He believes that by assuming a greater role in U.S.-Japan security cooperation and by placing the U.S.-Japan relationship on a more equal footing, Japan can better stand up to the U.S., such as on the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Again, his book provides evidence of this.
But his nationalistic behavior has ratcheted up already strained tensions with China and South Korean, particularly over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute. The U.S. surely doesn’t want to get involved in unnecessary military conflicts with a powerful and intractable rising China, its security treaty with Japan notwithstanding. As a consequence, more and more U.S. officials may rate Abe a security risk if he continues down his current path. That could very quickly force Abe to return his emphasis to continuity, rather than his departure from the postwar order.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times, NK News and Jane’s Defence Weekly, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke