GLOCOM Platform
opinions debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Opinions Last Updated: 09:13 06/04/2007
June 4, 2007

How Far will Abe Go in Defying Japan's 'Postwar Regime'?

Prime-minister's vague statements create public ambivalence; some worry scarcity of debate among Japanese could be harmful long-term

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan and also teaches at Waseda University)

Much like his now familiar but still unfocused "beautiful Japan," another enigmatic refrain from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is his pledge to "break away from the postwar regime." But because of their vagueness, many people are finding these ideas equally difficult to reject outright or embrace wholeheartedly.

The former might be cast aside as a relatively harmless idealistic utterance, but there is much more to the latter statement that must be clarified from the perspective of its implications for the future of the nation and its position in the world.

One problem is that Abe has not spelled out what he means by postwar regime, except that the Constitution, among other things, was imposed by foreigners - that is, Americans - during the occupation that followed Japan's defeat in the Pacific War. It appears his plea for change might boil down to saying that for that simple reason, the document needs to be rewritten regardless of what it actually says.

Grandfather's ghost

Abe likes to emphasize his deference to his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who, as a convicted Class-A war criminal for his role in waging war, experienced a political revival and served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi was responsible for pushing through the revision of the Japan-U.S. security treaty in defiance of the stormy protests that swept the nation.

Although Kishi's intension was to bring the security treaty, which was lopsided in favor of the U.S., to a more balanced and fairer level - and he succeeded in doing so - the result was that it made Japan's subordination to the U.S. deeper and less reversible.

At the bottom of his heart, Kishi was a fervent nationalist with a strong feeling of humiliation and resentment about losing the war and coming under American rule. If independence from the U.S. was what he sought, what ensued following the revision of the security treaty was all the more ironic.

The same sentiment about being defeated in the war has been echoed by Yasuhiro Nakasone, who served as prime minister from 1982 to 1987, which coincided with the Regan years in the U.S. Nakasone's starting point as a politician was the country's humiliation about losing the war and its strong desire to cleanse itself. Given the reality of Japan's relationship with the U.S., independence - at least of mind - was his theme. From his viewpoint, achieving even a pretense of that by the way of rethinking the postwar regime is important, and that is why he is enthusiastic about drumming up Abe's agenda.

The overwhelming reality, however, is that as a result of losing the war, Japan became an unfailing subordinate of the U.S. and it persistently worked to strengthen that relationship without a second thought throughout the postwar decades - a total capitulation. The tens of thousands of U.S. troops and military bases that continue to exist in this country, 60 years after the war, are often cited as evidence. And even apparently irrelevant episodes such as that of Japan being the only backer of the U.S. to oppose the firing of Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank president are often seen through this prism.

Ambiguous concept

If this is not the postwar regime, what else could define it? Abe stops short of addressing this fundamental, potentially vitriolic question. It is not even certain that Abe has it on his mind at all when he talks about shifting the nation in a different direction.

Popular ambivalence about Abe may originate from his lack of clarity on this issue, and it may prove to be a test for the prime minister in the future. What is certain is that the ties with the U.S., especially on the security front, look so formidable that any ideas about changing them have virtually been deemed impossible in the minds of the Japanese people.

The embarrassment many Japanese felt when they watched former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi mimic Elvis Presley - a product of his elation at being invited by President George W. Bush to visit the American singer's Graceland estate in Tennessee - or when Abe boasted about "George and I" being on a first-name basis while standing beside the president, is not entirely unrelated to the ambivalence they feel about their nation's relationship with the Western giant as a whole.

Regarding the comfort women issue - one symbol of Japan's still lingering difficulty in coming to terms with its past - Abe was apparently frightened by moves within the U.S. Congress to demand an "official" apology from Japan to these women and opted to offer an apology directly to President Bush.

This was hardly enough to satisfy his critics, however, who fumed about what in their view was Abe's failure to offer a face-to-face apology to the victims.

In the background of all this is what Keio University Prof. Yoshihide Soeya says are three traumas from which the Japanese people are still reeling - defeat in the war, occupation by Americans, and the solidification of their country's subordination to the U.S.

He may be right, but those things all happened 60 years ago, and the overwhelming majority of the nation's population consists of people born after the war. This group includes the prime minister himself, who makes a point of noting that he is the first prime minister of Japan to have been born after the war.

How his call to "break away from the postwar regime" is relevant to postwar generations is not exactly clear. Indifference, ignorance, ambivalence or combination of the three could be the response. Including the expected constitutional amendment, what stands out in Abe's argument to escape from the postwar status quo is the desire to be more straightforward about the use of military force and make people more obedient to the powers that be through education reform.

Debate shortage

It is unlikely that Abe's quest for a post-post-war regime will lead to a national reincarnation by inspiring people to engage in more spirited debate. But although Abe may not have the necessary capability or charisma, he may be able to capitalize on the general feeling of lethargy that seems to be rampant. This is symbolized by the poor quality of parliamentary interpellation and media commentaries, both of which are locked in a futile face-off.

Some believe that impassive public response to this low-key, gentle-looking leader might turn out to be a dangerous thing in the end. The absence of willingness and ability to engage in debate on cardinal issues - among them the proposed constitutional amendment, the collective self-defense right issue or education reform - is very much indicative of the prevailing mood.

(Originally appeared in the May 28, 2007 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications