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Across Party Lines, Taiwan Mourns Abe Shinzo

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Across Party Lines, Taiwan Mourns Abe Shinzo

The former Japanese prime minister’s support for Taiwan brought condolences even from the KMT, which is generally antagonistic toward Japan.

Across Party Lines, Taiwan Mourns Abe Shinzo

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visits a memorial to former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo at the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, Taipei, Taiwan, July 11, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/ Tsai Ing-wen

Given Abe Shinzo’s strong record of support for Taiwan, it may not be surprising to note the many public expressions of grief for Abe that have taken place in Taiwan since the former prime minister’s assassination last week.

Abe’s recent support for Taiwan included calls for the United States to formally commit itself to the defense of Taiwan. Such comments predictably alarmed Beijing, especially as Abe was also calling for the U.S. to station nuclear arms in Japan as security against China.

Likewise, Abe played a key role in facilitating vaccine donations to Taiwan during Taiwan’s first major outbreak of COVID-19, and expressed support for Taiwanese pineapples and agricultural produce at a time when they were hit with a ban by China. Many Taiwanese politicians chose to commemorate Abe in social media posts mourning his death with a photo of Abe holding up pineapples from Taiwan, indicating that he was looking forward to eating them.

Abe’s support for the Tsai administration may have started before she actually became president. Though it was denied by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Abe was thought by Japanese media to have met Tsai in October 2015 during her first presidential campaign, after “coincidentally” running into her in a hotel while she was attending a lunch hosted by the Japan Interchange Association in Tokyo. Shortly prior, Abe had “coincidentally” met with former President Lee Teng-hui in a hotel in July 2015, during a trip by Lee to Tokyo.

Indeed, Abe had originally been scheduled to visit Taiwan at the end of July for the anniversary of Lee’s death. Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Lee frequently commented positively on having grown up during Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, and took the view that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands belonged exclusively to Japan. Lee died on July 30, 2020, and the visit from Abe would have been to mark the two-year anniversary his passing.

Following Abe’s death, Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai traveled to Japan on Monday to offer condolences. The visit was described as a “personal trip” by Lai, though he was accompanied by Taiwan’s representative to Japan, Frank Hsieh. Lai’s trip was preceded by President Tsai Ing-wen expressing regret over Abe’s passing and condemning the violent murder that took place.

Lai is the highest-ranking Taiwanese government official to visit Japan in 50 years, since Japan broke ties with the ROC in favor of the PRC in 1972. Notably, this was not Lai’s only trip to Japan in recent memory, as he traveled to Japan in 2019 to give a speech to the Japanese House of Representatives, but back then Lai was then Tsai’s premier and not her vice president. Lai’s recent trip to Japan is particularly tinged with meaning, in consideration of the fact that he is considered a frontrunner for the DPP’s next presidential candidate.

More generally, public mourning for Abe in Taiwan has been similar to the mourning that would take place for the passing of a state leader, as occurred most recently with Lee’s 2020 death.

On the night that Abe died, Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, lit up with messages about Abe that read “Thank you Prime Minister Abe for your support and friendship to Taiwan,” “Mourning Prime Minister Abe,” and “Taiwan’s friend for good.” The use of Taipei 101 for diplomatic signaling has also taken place on other occasions, such as when Taipei 101 lit up with a message of welcome for former Trump administration secretary of state Mike Pompeo during a trip by Pompeo to Taiwan in March.

A memorial wall was also set up by local groups outside of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, Japan’s representative organization in Taiwan in lieu of official diplomatic ties, for individuals to leave messages of condolence for Abe. Prominent politicians of the pan-Green camp were among those to visit the wall, which proved similar to a memorial wall set up for Lee at the Taipei Guest House for mourners to leave messages in 2020. The Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association later opened its basement for mourners, with an official guestbook set up for invited guests.

Tsai herself visited the association to pay her respects and sign the book on July 11. “Taiwan’s eternal friend, thank you for your contributions to the Taiwan-Japan friendship and to democracy, freedom, human rights, and peace around the world,” she wrote, according to a statement from Taiwan’s presidential office.

Most notable of all, however, may be that the Tsai administration ordered national flags to be lowered to half-staff for Abe. Taiwan is not the only country to do so, with the U.S. also lowering flags to half-staff, but the gesture is particularly sensitive in light of Taiwan’s history of Japanese colonization. Abe was often criticized for apologism for the period during his lifetime.

The KMT and pan-Blue camp have historically been antagonistic toward Japan, compared to the DPP and pan-Green camp, due to lingering memories of the Sino-Japanese War. By contrast, many members of the pan-Green camp view the Japanese colonial period favorably when compared to the authoritarian period after the KMT came to Taiwan.

This has been an object of contention between the two political camps in the past, with the pan-Blue camp lashing out at the pan-Green camp for perceived pro-Japan sentiment. Indeed, one of the more memorable incidents of Taiwanese politics in the past decade may have been when the deep Blue pro-China Unification Promotion Party, led by former gangster Chang An-le and frequently accused of organized crime links, demonstrated outside of the DPP party headquarters in August 2015 while dressed in imperial Japanese army costume.

At the same time, support for Japan from the public has been strong, with Taiwan donating the most of any country in the world to Japan after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. There was much praise from Taiwanese netizens for Japanese aid to Taiwan after a 2016 earthquake, but there were not similar reactions to aid from China at the time.

The contentious history of the Japanese empire has still played itself out in wedge issues between Taiwan and Japan – just more usually with the pan-Blue camp. For example, it is the KMT that has more often been supportive of calls by surviving Taiwanese “comfort women” for an official apology from Japan. This colors perceptions of Abe, seeing as during his time as prime minister he refused to apologize to surviving comfort women, which proved a stumbling block to efforts by the United States to establish closer ties between Japan and South Korea against the threat of China.

Nevertheless, KMT party chair Eric Chu is in the midst of a concerted attempt to change the image of the party, including a recent diplomatic visit to the U.S. to mark the KMT reopening an office in Washington, D.C. Chu claims that the KMT has been unfairly labeled as a pro-China, rather than a pro-U.S. party. In doing so, he is attempting to reassure not only Washington but also domestic voters in Taiwan that may punish the KMT at the polls later this year with the view that it is a pro-China, pro-unification party. Chu has historically been viewed as pro-U.S. within the KMT.

As a result, the KMT’s central leadership under Chu took the unusual tack of expressing support for the lowering of the national flag to half-staff for Abe, stating that this represented the respect and gratitude of the Taiwanese people toward Abe. For this, Chu has been roundly criticized by deep Blues within the KMT such as former chair Hung Hsiu-chu, media personality Jaw Shaw-kong, and Sun Yat-Sen School head Chang Ya-chung. More generally, it was a highly unusual move for a party that has historically been so antagonistic toward Japan to express support for lowering the national flag to half-staff to mourn a Japanese prime minister, illustrating to what extent Chu is willing to take political risks as part of his efforts at rebranding the KMT.

In the meantime, with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) having done well at the polls this weekend, it is expected that the LDP will continue to advance policy supportive of Taiwan. The Lai visit was clearly a signal from current Primer Minister Kishida Fumio – directed at China, Taiwan, and the U.S. alike. Likewise, Taiwan’s envoy to Japan, Frank Hsieh, has announced that seven members of the Japanese Diet will visit Taiwan by the end of July.

In the past few years, the pro-Beijing and pro-Taiwan wings of the LDP were seen as coming to a consensus with regard to stronger support of Taiwan under U.S. auspices. But it is to be seen whether the LDP uses its momentum after Abe’s death to try and push for initiatives that Abe advanced in his lifetime, but was unsuccessful in doing.

For example, Abe was unsuccessful in his push to amend the Japanese constitution, which forbids the waging of war except in defense. But the LDP may pick up the push for constitutional amendment again, in the wake of Abe’s death and its recent election victories, as some analysts have suggested.

If so, this would be a challenge for Kishida, as there were large protests in Japan against its reinterpretation of Article 9 in 2014. But the success or failure of this push will dovetail with hopes by the Tsai administration to establish military cooperation with Japan.

Either way, Taiwan is hoping to strengthen economic ties with Japan that may encourage it to come to Taiwan’s defense, through admittance to the Japan-led CPTPP, and so it may also try to highlight its current CPTPP bid in recent diplomatic exchanges with Japan regarding Abe’s death.