JAPAN’S NEW PRIME MINISTER EXPECTED TO FOLLOW ABE’S HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
While discussing departing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his successor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, on my weekly “Genron” Internet TV news show last Friday (September 11), my two guests and I inevitably touched on the subject of what Abe’s greatest accomplishment has been. “He has saved Japan from the edge of the abyss, so to speak,” declared political journalist Fumito Ishibashi.
At the time he came into the office the country was in a mess under the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) administration. The economy was in a shambles and the country had no respect from any country overseas. If the DPJ had stayed in office, the Senkaku Islands would now be under the control of China. Ishibashi feels strongly that the landslide victory Abe led the LDP (Liberal-Democratic Party) to in 2012 revitalized Japan.
Among all that Abe has achieved, I believe his most significant achievement may be the leadership he has exercised in rectifying the twisted historical perspective of Japanese. In an August 15, 2015 address marking the end of World War II, Abe stated: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and future generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” He thus preached the importance of looking at history objectively.
Abe’s point was that, while we Japanese must be humble enough to regret what must be regretted in terms of the last war, we must simultaneously be ready to take pride in the path Japanese of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation took. Abe in effect emphasized that evaluating the behavior of wartime Japan by facing history squarely was crucial in rejecting the twisted interpretation of history that demands that Japan keep apologizing forever. We agreed that this rectification of a negative historical perspective has been his greatest accomplishment over his seven years and eight months as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. As our conversation deepened, Ishibashi remarked:
“Abe has prompted the center of our electorate to change their perception of history significantly. There have always been rightists and leftists in Japan. When I became a journalist 30 years ago, those who sang our national anthem were called rightists. But today, those who don’t sing it are dubbed leftists. Shinzo Abe wanted to straighten that out. He had long been grappling with school textbook issues before becoming prime minister in 2012. That is one of the reasons why he has often clashed with the leftwing media. But those in the center of our society are ordinary citizens who have belatedly come to realize which is more natural for them—to sing the national anthem or not to sing it. There’s a very big difference between calling everyone who sings it a rightist and claiming those who don’t sing it as belonging to specific minorities. I firmly believe Abe’s greatest contribution has been his success in having changed the perception of history on the part of a significant number of those in the center of the political spectrum.
I can’t agree with him more.
Japan as Semi-Sovereign Nation
With Abe at the helm, the LDP easily has won all of the six national elections since 2012. Suga says he will follow Abe’s policies. But I don’t suppose he means to literally follow each and every single policy his predecessor has pursued. What I believe Suga means he is prepared to take over Abe’s values that have been strongly supported by the people. That, I suppose, will mean he will strive to implement greater reform in an effort to make Japan what it was truly made out to be. Ultimately, this leads to the question of Suga’s own historical perspective.
Abe was aware—perhaps more strongly than any of his colleagues—that Japan must be a sovereign nation. The reader may take it for granted that Japan is an independent nation by its own right, but it actually is not a full-fledged sovereign nation in terms of its constitution and national security. Protected by the US, its powerful Pacific ally, post-war Japan has long been immersed in an abnormal situation that made it essentially a non-independent nation. Many of we Japanese have been too peace-addicted and used to this cozy relationship. Against this backdrop grew the popular sentiment, as pointed out by Ishibashi, that only the rightists liked to sing the national anthem—a twisted view that Japan should keep apologizing to the world forever because everything about its past was “ evil.”
I wish to point out and stress time and again that this enlightened historical perspective is the most vital element of Abe’s legacy Suga is expected to take over. But cherishing a historical perspective by principle alone will not be enough. As the new prime minister, Suga will definitely be called on to resolutely grapple with issues that affect Japan’s international relations.
A case in point is Seoul’s strong protest against the decision Tokyo made last year to tighten export controls over strategic products, removing South Korea from a “favored nations” list. I highly value Suga’s pledge to not give an inch in dealing with Seoul over this matter. Another case also involves protests from Seoul—against the government’s Industrial Heritage Information Center which opened in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in March. Its head is Ms Koko Kato, former special advisor to the cabinet.
Kato has done a splendid job in presenting a panoramic view of how Japan, awakened violently by western imperial powers from a medieval slumber in the mid-1800s, dynamically transformed itself into a modern nation in slightly over half a century by implementing its version of an industrial revolution. Kato has traced the footsteps of our great leaders of the Meiji Era, putting together a meticulous chronicle of their sweat, tears, joy, and insight—an evocative tale that never fails to deeply touch one’s heart.
Meiji Japan vigorously studied everything needed for its modernization, including human resources, administrative organization, law, philosophy, and literature, making stunning progress especially in heavy industry—iron and steel, shipbuilding, and coal-mining. That a medieval Japan achieved this industrial revolution was due in no small part to a group of highly committed, educated, and skilled people available across Japan at the time. Without doubt, they were mostly average citizens—sincere, earnest, hard-working, and equipped with strong work ethics.
Let us take a look at Hashima in Nagasaki Prefecture—an off-shore western Japanese island with abundant under-sea coal resources. Called “the Battleship Island” because it resembled one, Hashima attracted Japanese and Korean coal miners who worked harmoniously together. Mitsubishi, which ran the mine, built among the world’s most advanced coal mines and an equally modern high-rise housing complex on this small island for the workers and their families, strictly implementing a code that preached that Japanese and Korean workers be treated equally.
But South Korea staged a vehement global campaign objecting to the island’s registration as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site in 2015, portraying Hashima as “Hell Island.” They have charged Japanese with having committed every atrocity under the sun against Korean miners during the war, including “coercive recruitment” and “slave labor.”
Strong Dissenting Opinions of Former Islanders
Kato has met more than 70 former islanders, interviewing each of them up to several dozen hours. The testimony from Japanese and Koreans alike who had worked and lived together on Hashima completely contradicted any allegations of torture, abuse, or coercive recruitment of Koreans—in short anything that fits Hashima’s description by Korean activists as “Hell Island.”
The first important step in historical research is to obtain first-person accounts. That is exactly what Kato has done as regards the former residents of Hashima. And yet she has been subjected to a series of fierce protests, mainly from South Korean activists and their Japanese associates. Korean media representatives also have crowded into her center almost daily, along with South Korean embassy staffers. These visits are fundamentally welcome, but Kato says their purpose has overwhelmingly been to protest against the absence of testimony or materials at the center that conform to their claims defaming Hashima as “Hell Island.” It is simply too much to expect the center to display exhibits that run counter to historical fact.
The problem is that Kato has been a target of attacks from the Japanese side as well. For instance, two major media outlets—the liberal Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo News Service—are thought to have coordinated protests with some Korean groups plotting actions against the center. I will leave the reader to peruse the September and October issues of the Monthly Hanada for the details. What I find most interesting is that two reporters—Daisuke Shimizu of the Asahi and Shu Nishino of Kyodo—paid Kato a visit recently, accompanied by activist Hideki Yano. Yano is secretary-general of an organization called “Japan-South Korea Joint Action Committee for the Enactment of A Bill to Compensate Former Korean Workers Forced into Hard Labor in Wartime Japan.” What is obvious is that Yano and others are repeating their accusations based on unsubstantiated information.
The forces that have protested to Kato haven’t just been South Koreans, the Asahi, or Kyodo. Kato has confided in me that, while researching the evolution of the Meiji industrial revolution and the roles played by various individual players in this grand national endeavor, very strong objections were voiced against her efforts by leading bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, including a handful of heavyweights who take up cozy positions within the foreign ministry or right in the center of the prime minister’s office.
Kato’s collection and compilation of materials and testimony, and the opening of her center, could not have been possible without the strong backing of Abe himself.
Suga will do well to guarantee the center’s continued operation and steady growth so it will be able to continue shedding light on the bold strides Meiji Japan took toward its future. By doing so, Suga will be able to fulfill the promise he made to continue and bring to realization Abe’s political agenda.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 918 in the September 24, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)