How Shinzo Abe Sought to Rewrite Japanese History

How Shinzo Abe Sought to Rewrite Japanese History


Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated on Friday, in the city of Nara. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe had served in Japan’s highest elected office twice: the first time, for a year, starting in 2006, and the second time between 2012 and 2020. Abe came from a prominent political family—his father had been a foreign minister, and his grandfather had served as Prime Minister in the late nineteen-fifties after avoiding war-crimes charges—and remained one of the most powerful politicians in the country even after leaving office, in 2020. As Prime Minister, Abe sought to reëstablish Japan as a forceful presence in international affairs, and his policy to jumpstart the Japanese economy came to be known as Abenomics. He failed, however, in his push to revise Japan’s constitution to allow the country to take nondefensive military action abroad. Abe cultivated strong relationships with a number of world leaders, including Donald Trump and the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but relationships in the Asia-Pacific region, especially with South Korea, were strained by Abe’s unwillingness to fully acknowledge Japan’s heinous behavior during the Second World War.

After Abe’s death, I spoke by phone with Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut who specializes in modern Japan and Korea. She was in Tokyo when we talked. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Abe’s Second World War revisionism, his complicated feelings about America, and why his push to reform the Japanese constitution ultimately failed.

How do you see Abe’s legacy?

He was a Prime Minister who reconfigured Japan’s place in East Asia, or at least tried to. He tried to create a more assertive Japan through a very proactive—as he liked to describe it—attempt at diplomacy. And he travelled widely. He met with Vladimir Putin more than with any other world leader: more than twenty times. He did meet Xi Jinping, and he was the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump after [Trump] became President. Abe, however, created a deep rift between Japan and its Asian neighbors over his extremely hawkish outlook, his extremist positions on the legacy of the Japanese empire, and its responsibilities for atrocities committed throughout Asia and the Pacific. While many are extolling him as a great leader, his personal vision for rewriting Japanese history, of a glorious past, created a real problem in East Asia which will linger, because it divided not just the different countries’ approach to diplomacy with Japan; it also divided Japanese society even further over how to approach its own responsibility for wartime actions carried out in the name of the emperor.

You used the phrase “rewriting history.” Do you mean rewriting the truth, or do you mean rewriting the way people in Japan understood their history? To what degree was Abe, when he came into office for the first time, in 2006, a departure from the way that Japan understood its own history? And to what degree was this more of the status quo, but just in a more aggressive fashion?

The helpful thing about studying Abe is that he himself published several articles and books, and he gave numerous speeches about history and about his vision of Japan’s history, in particular. When he first became a parliamentarian, in the early nineteen-nineties, inheriting his father’s seat, he was part of a study group inside Parliament that is believed to have written a document denying the Nanjing Massacre. This article used to be available in Japan’s Diet archives. It is no longer traceable, but it was there. Abe began in the mid-nineties, when there was an effort to really socially readdress Japan’s wartime role in Asia, after the death of Emperor Hirohito, in the wake of the first “comfort women” coming forward. That’s when Japanese political leaders really became more public about the positioning of their own parties’ views of Japan’s role in Asia, in a new, more strident way that sought to rewrite how Japan and the Japanese should see it.

Fast forward to his first term as Prime Minister, in 2006. By that time, these issues had been much better studied academically and socially within Japan and throughout the world. Abe made a big effort, in 2006 and 2007, to deny that Japan bore any state responsibility for the comfort women, in particular. And he failed at that attempt. This is when he and his supporters took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post. And it was a real moment of shock for him when the U.S. Congress passed a nonbinding House resolution asking Japan to atone for its role in creating the comfort-women system. That was also when he resigned for the first time because of his ulcerative colitis.

But, between 1994 and 2006, his chief lobbying group, called the Nippon Kaigi, was created—this political-lobbying group didn’t have much of a public face, but it emerged as an extremely powerful ideologically based group. And this is why comparing him to Trump and [India’s Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and other extremists—or people with extreme views or people who give voice to extreme views—is apt, because these groups seem to come out of nowhere for a lot of us. Like, who was Steve Bannon until there was Steve Bannon? Abe, in that interim between being a junior parliamentarian and becoming Prime Minister, had become this group’s head of history and territory. And, in that moment, he also published a work about making Japan great again, which he called “Towards a Beautiful Country.”

I just wanted to follow up on the Nanjing Massacre. Americans may know this as the Rape of Nanking, when, in 1937, Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese people and raped tens of thousands. And there have been some efforts in Japan to deny all this. What exactly was Abe arguing about this?

He argued several aspects of this in different places—specifically that much of it was a fabrication, that much of it was an effort by China to smear Japan, that, in fact, nowhere near the numbers of people as claimed had been massacred, and that in many cases it was the Chinese soldiers targeting the Japanese. And so this is really that kind of Holocaust denialism.

He’s a departure insofar as he comes as part of the backlash in the early to mid-nineties to many Japanese leaders, even those within Abe’s own party, beginning publicly to accept Japan’s responsibility for state-sponsored atrocities. This, in particular, is because, in Japan, until Emperor Hirohito died, in 1989, it was not possible for any public official, let alone any academic, to publicly discuss the role of the emperor and whether the emperor himself, or Japan in the name of the emperor, bore responsibility for these atrocities. And the hot-button issues are Nanjing and the comfort women and Abe’s visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

After Abe came to power in 2012, there were some efforts to apologize more for Japan’s wartime behavior, with some American pressure, presumably because the United States wanted to unite Asian countries around opposing China, and Japan’s wartime record was a stumbling block. Were these moves by Abe sincere or substantive?

It would not be possible for me to judge the sincerity of someone’s apology. However, what is possible to judge is what Abe’s study group continued to do with him continuing to be in charge. In particular, as soon as he came into power for the second time, in 2012, the group opened a cabinet-level investigation into what’s called the Kono Statement, which the Japanese government, led by Abe’s own party, had issued to apologize for the comfort-women issue, in 1993. Abe ordered an investigation into how that statement came about. And that really touched off a more public debate among Japanese academics, Korean academics, Chinese academics, and all of their supporters, but, most importantly, the victims, saying, “Wait a minute, is Japan going to rescind the apologies it’s already made?”

Abe would say things like, “Well, I maintain the positions of the government of Japan,” on wartime anniversaries, et cetera. And yet, at the same time, his own government was not just whittling away but hollowing out what was already on the books—in particular the Kono Statement. So it’s under Abe’s second term, in the twenty-tens, that, for example, we see a government-backed effort to pressure publishers into removing passages about atrocities committed by the Japanese Army and Japanese soldiers during World War Two, particularly on the continent in Asia, and also how Japanese efforts should be remembered at the archival level, how Japan’s efforts against the Allies should be taught, and how battles that were lost should be thought about, for example.

When he was invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, in April, 2015, he gave a speech that everyone stood up and applauded at. And yet the battles that he recalled were largely battles that Japan had won against America or were considered a draw. And the Americans recognized that this was what he was talking about. Then, in August of that year, Abe talked about how Japan’s efforts in 1904 and 1905, when Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, gave hope to oppressed people throughout the world. Well, this was the war that led to the colonization of Korea, so the speech was a direct slap to Korea. And so, at each stage, when it appeared as if Abe was sort of recognizing that Japan had committed these acts, he actually was using words that made clear he was distancing the country from taking any responsibility or from any sense that he would accept responsibility for the atrocities committed and things that continue to fuel the so-called history problems in the region.

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