IN MEMORY OF SHINZO ABE
Shinzo Abe was assassinated on July 8 on the campaign trail in Nara, western Japan. Why was he killed? Why weren’t his bodyguards able to stop the assassin after the first shot? Why was the assassin allowed to get off a second shot?
Why, why. I keep asking as a magma-like rage rises from the bottom of my heart at this act of terrorism and the shock of having lost one of our great political leaders. But what has happened cannot be undone no matter how much I deplore the tragedy.
Footage of the assassination scene shows a group of security police and police officers standing at the scene when two shots are fired—barely three seconds apart. The police failed to take immediate action to protect Abe. I assume these men went out into the field that morning resolved to do their day’s work well. But none of them took the necessary action when faced with a real threat. Not a single one of them could take action.
The assassin missed his first shot. Between 2.5 and three seconds later, he took aim at Abe again, firing his second shot, which would prove to be fatal. Footage shows the security team springing into action only after the second shot knocks Abe to the ground.
This is today’s Japan, the scene of the assassination reflecting the preamble and Article 9 of its constitution, which renounces war forever. The evil nations of the world will not attack Japan so long as we refrain from behaving badly and strive to preserve peace. So long as we keep our military buildup to the minimum, use our military capabilities prudently, and don’t rub other countries the wrong way, we believe we can maintain our pacifism.
In the spirit of Article 9, Japan has sought to escape from reality by keeping its military capabilities to the minimum within the framework of its police law. Like human beings, a nation doesn’t have to see its imminent threat if it keeps its eyes shut. Postwar Japan has practiced a phony peace for too long, refusing to prepare for the possibility of a real conflict and giving itself to an imaginary “kind and compassionate world.” The assassination of Abe has symbolically brough to light the negative aspects of the peace and security of our nation founded on this fragile escapism.
Given that the entire nation is under the influence of this pacifism advocated by Article 9, it was only natural that many at home and abroad were dumbfounded by how the Japanese government reacted to Abe’s assassination.
Abe was a rare visionary in Japan’s modern political history. He formulated a world strategy for Japan in an effort to explain to the people of Japan how their nation should perform as a normal democracy committed to playing its part in contributing to international prosperity and security. Abe was not only a treasure of Japan but a respected figure much trusted and depended on at such functions as the G7 summit by world leaders like US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Has there ever been a prime minister on a par with Abe in Japan? Abe definitely was the first of his kind. But such an outstanding leader, impossible to replace, was brutally assassinated in broad daylight. The fragility of Japan that the incident laid bare is being witnessed by China, Russia, and the rest of the world. It would not be surprising for nations who are a potential threat to Japan to take note.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should have more sharply sensed the serious implications of the assassination and reacted much more proactively. He should have, for instance, immediately convened a national security session and announced measures being taken in response to the assassination. It is incumbent on the Japanese government to demonstrate internationally that it recognizes the seriousness of the incident and that it is taking action—that it is capable of addressing any national threat with a sufficient sense of crisis. Meanwhile, government investigators must grill the assassin to establish what drove him to kill Abe. An effective deterrence against future such outrages can be gained by the government demonstrating a resolve to not just regard the culprit as a lone assassin but investigate the incident as widely and thoroughly as possible.
But the sad thing is that the Kishida administration lacks this sense of crisis. Not only that. One is not quite sure how Kishida personally took Abe’s assassination as prime minister of Japan and also as a parliamentarian who won his first Diet seat in the same year (1993) as Abe. The people of Japan are not quite clear as to how Kishida himself and other government leaders have taken Abe’s assassination. Kishida should have manifestly expressed the deep anger and feelings of grief Japan feels as a nation around the world immediately.
On July 8, when Abe was assassinated, the White House flew the US flag at half-mast. President Joe Biden further ordered all flags across the US flown at half-mast July 8-10. According to US social media, the Stars and Stripes was flown at half-mast at police stations, post offices, gas stations, supermarkets, schools, and private homes across the country. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew into Tokyo from Indonesia en route home from a G20 summit in Bali to express America’s sympathy to Japan.
The UK and France mourned Abe’s death as well as India, which like the US observed a three-day mourning, flying its national flags at half-mast. In many other Asia-Pacific nations, governments and citizens alike expressed sorrow and sympathy.
In Japan, the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) took the lead in flying the flag at half-mast at its headquarters building in Nagata-cho. But the flags at the Diet building and the official residences of the speakers of the two chambers of the parliament kept flying aloft as usual over the weekend before eventually being flown at half-mast two days later on Monday. What an insensitive response!
When he became prime minister in 2006, Abe vowed to “revive Japan.” What he intended to revive was Japanese values. Tracing the history of Japan, one realizes that it is a respected nation that has nurtured a gentle and splendid culture. Our forefathers, who have inhabited our archipelago over several hundred generations, have succeeded in forming a community that cares for fellow citizens based on the principle of compassion. That is why Abe’s first cabinet (2007-2008) sought to revise the Fundamental Law of Education, enacted in 1947 while Japan was still under American occupation. This was intended as a first step toward revising Japan’s “war renouncing” constitution, which has prevented Japan from developing into a normal democracy. Abe also managed to quickly elevate the then Defense Agency to the Ministry of Defense (January 2007), as he believed the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) should be governed by a ministry, not a government agency. Abe at the time vowed to the nation that revising the constitution, which shaped postwar Japanese society, was his primary political mission.
During his second and third administrations (December 2012-October 2015), Abe enacted two important laws aimed at bolstering Japan’s national defense: the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets Act and the Peace and Security Act.
In my “Genron” Friday Internet TV news show on September 11, 2015, Abe explained how he intended to change Japan while governing day to day. At the time, the deliberations on the pending Peace and Security legislation were coming to a boil. The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) refused to discuss the issue further at the Diet, joining demonstrators outside the premises in singing anti-LDP slogans instead.
Professor Jiro Yamaguchi of Hosei University spoke before the demonstrators, saying:
“I wish to tell Abe this. Abe, you are not human. I will cut you in two.” Yamaguchi also
tweeted: “The existing conflict in Japanese politics is civilization versus barbarism, rationality versus irrationality, and intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism. If those living in Japan wish to continue to stay human, they must prove their worth by opposing the Peace and Security Act.”
Leading opposition parliamentarians Renho and Mizuho Fukushima criticized the bill as “war legislation.”
When I asked Abe what he thought of these accusations, he replied without hesitation:
“If Mr. Yamaguchi wishes to talk about the conflict between intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism, I think he better refrain from saying ‘Abe is not human’ and wishing to ‘cut me in two.’ If this is “war legislation,” I would be the first to oppose it. And so would all Asian nations. But almost all Asian nations are for it. How, then, can this be war legislation?”
“My party, the LDP, wishes to take plenty of time to engage our counterpart (the DPJ) in dialogue to explain the legislation—rather than attacking them.”
A quick read of the record of the Diet remarks made at the time will convince anyone that Abe put his best into explaining the legislation in question. But most opposition members turned a deaf ear to what he had to say. Well aware his approval ratings would drop, Abe put up with all these obstructions and managed to eventually enact the bill on September 19, 2015. The US-Japan alliance, indispensable for Japan’s security, is more stable than ever at this juncture thanks significantly to the enactment of this legislation.
Abe’s explanation on my news show as regards Japan’s need for the Peace and Security Act was impeccable and extremely well organized. The new law would allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense, albeit partially. Why must Japan exercise the right? He explained as follows:
*The interpretation of Japan’s right to collective self-defense is 40 years old, with
the fundamental idea of the JSDF defending foreign countries rather than Japan
*Any action on the part of Japan to defend foreign nations would exceed the minimum military requirement and was automatically deemed unconstitutional;
*Over the past four decades, however, even North Korea has come to own missiles and nuclear weapons, with which they would be able to target Japan;
*If we fail to protect American Aegis ships on the alert on the seas in preparation for a missile attack on Japan, the US-Japan alliance will face a serious crisis;
*Protecting American ships is mandatory for Japan’s survival and the wellbeing of our people, and exercising our right to collective self-defense at a minimum requires military action as an American ally;
*In 1959, our Supreme Court recognized Japan’s right to self-defense as an Inherent right of a democracy;
*Now is the time for we politicians to seriously consider what self-defense measures we should commit ourselves to in order to protect the people of Japan;
*Last year (2014), under a security environment dramatically different from 40 years ago, the government went ahead to change the interpretation of the right to individual and collective self-defense. That led to the Peace and Security Act.
Abe explained the above quite eloquently without once looking at any material to prompt himself. In fact, the depth of his comprehension and ability to explain complex issues far exceeded ordinary bureaucrats and politicians. Abe was a brilliant politician.
Reasons for Some Tension between Us
Abe also paid tribute to his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister 1957-60:
“In his memoir my grandfather recalls the year 1960 when the US-Japan Security Treaty was revised despite violent demonstrations outside the Diet instigated by leftwing forces. He writes that he was very sorry for being misunderstood and bitterly criticized for what the revision would not realistically result in—such as a revival of the wartime conscription system, sons and husbands sent to the battleground, and Japan getting involved in America’s wars. Fifty-five years later, I see our leftwing media outlets assume quite the same hostile attitude toward the government.”
Two politicians—a grandfather and his grandson—devoted their lives to liberate Japan from the yoke of a constitution hastily imposed in November 1946 by the American Occupation. Kishi and Abe aspired to adjust the postwar legal system in order to allow Japan to function as a normal democracy. While leftwing forces in Japan have refused to recognize the lofty achievements of Kishi and Abe, the international community has given Abe high marks. More than 50 nations from around the world, including many in Asia, have formally shown their approval of the passage of the Peace and Security Law Abe is credited with.
Abe said this about his conversation with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on his official visit to Japan in July 2015:
“Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked me for Japan’s dispatch of PKO personnel to Cambodia in 1992, noting that they significantly contributed to his nation’s development. He told me that Cambodia has since dispatched its own PKO forces to Sudan to engage in medical aid activities. As you recall, Naoto Kan, who at the time led the opposition DPJ, was bitterly opposed to the dispatch of the PKO personnel.”
That day I felt that Abe talked to his heart’s content about what was on his mind, and yet I knew he wasn’t wholly satisfied with the session. That was because toward the end of the show I pointed out that he and the LDP had yet another hurdle to clear—a revision of the constitution.
Abe at the time was tackling the controversial security legislation which would determine the shape of Japan’s future alliance with the US. While enacting the legislation itself was already a difficult proposition, I had the cheek to bring up constitutional revision—a much higher hurdle for the Abe administration to clear. For a politician who was seriously committed to a process of producing results one by one, it was a question he didn’t want to hear at the time.
On the other hand, it is my journalistic responsibility to raise questions about important political and social issues. And I have a propensity to sometimes uncompromisingly press my interviewees to answer my questions. Although my relationship with Abe was fundamentally cordial, that was the reason some “tension” occasionally cropped up between us.
Abe and I were on the same wavelength for sure. I fully understood what he meant when he said he wished to “revive Japan” when he came to power. Subtle differences between us naturally developed over individual issues. Although we agreed on the general direction of Japan’s foreign policy with Russia and China, we differed on near-term policies. I would ask him to clarify these differences, and each time Abe would take pains to sincerely explain his position.
In September 2016, a Japanese-Russian summit was held in Tokyo and Abe’s hometown of Nagato City, Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan. This time, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to forge ahead with several bilateral economic projects without making headway in negotiating a Japan-Russia peace treaty and the coveted return to Japan of four northern islands held by Russia since the end of the last war. Naturally, I was unable to give high marks to the summit.
Two years later, in September 2018, Putin proposed signing the peace treaty “with no strings attached” out of the blue at the Russian-sponsored Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The Russians had two treaties in mind. Their strategy: 1) they would agree on reciprocal peace, friendship, and cooperation under the first treaty, and 2) on the basis of the first treaty, they would conclude a second treaty concerning the territorial issue at a later date.
Abe’s predecessors had worked hard over the decades to regain all of the four northern islands. The results of their efforts could be seen in the various agreements signed with Russia, including: the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration (signed with Prime Minister Nicholai Bulganin); the 1993 Tokyo Declaration (signed with President Boris Yeltsin); the 1997 Krasnoyarsk agreement (signed with Yeltsin); the 1998 Kawana Proposal (made to Yeltsin); and the 2001 Irkutsk Statement (signed with Putin). I was agitated because I felt Abe was trying to jump over the long and tough history of negotiations with Russia to return to the 1956 document, which stipulated that Russia would return two smaller islands in order to sign the peace treaty with Japan at a later date.
After explaining to me that Russia would not budge an inch so long as Japan stuck to its demand for all the four islands and that former Japanese residents of the islands were all getting on in years, Abe reminded me that Japan should always bear in mind that it had China and Russia to deal with at the same time.
He warned me that a very difficult situation for Japan would be created if China and Russia were to team up. As China’s power continued to build up, and Russia’s to decline, Abe was contemplating a strategy to not push Russia toward China unnecessarily.
In comparison with this broader strategy, the importance of discussions on a return of the Russian-held islands naturally would wane, relatively speaking. Although Abe’s grand geopolitical strategy went down the drain with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Abe cast a sharp eye on the whole of the Eurasian continent and both China and Russia, contemplating the northern island issue within a larger framework. It was indeed a splendid strategy.
“Abe is like Yoshida Shōin”
Ikuo Kiyohara has long supported Abe’s political activities in his native Yamaguchi Prefecture. Abe once confided in me about Kiyohara’s personality, noting that despite their long friendship he had never been asked to do Kiyohara a favor. When he paid the much criticized visit to Yasukuni Shrine (as an incumbent prime minister) in December 2013, Abe recalled that Kiyohara “just said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for going to Yasukuni Shrine.’” Abe remarked that he was indeed fortunate to be supported by such good people.
A devout follower of Yoshida Shōin, Kiyohara said, “I think Prime Minister Abe resembles Shōin very much” in that they were absolutely committed to their causes and were endowed with an outstanding ability to act. Shōin was an educator who always set an example by vigorously taking the initiative in everything.” (Yoshida Shōin was one of the most distinguished intellectuals in the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate; he devoted himself to preparing young Japanese for the Meiji Restoration.)
Shōin was in a hurry as Japan was rocked by foreign powers demanding an opening of its ports, and firmly believed that Japan would be subjected to a foreign invasion unless it made up its mind to change its old system as fast as possible. He wrote to his students at Shoka Sonjuku, a private school he ran in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which produced a number of future Japanese leaders in the late Edo period: “I am afraid we Japanese have become such cowards. I wonder whether my old friends and acquaintances will awaken to reality if I am to strive for the good of the nation and die.”
In other words, Shōin was chagrined that Japanese were slow to awaken to the new era amid a grand transformation of Japan and suggested that he would sacrifice his life in order to awaken Japan.
“I think Prime Minister Abe may have shared the same intensity as Shōin,” Kiyohara remarked gently.
Shōin was decapitated in Tokyo at age 29 for allegedly instigating a coup against the Tokugawa government in 1859, nine years before the Meiji Restoration. Shōin welcomed anyone into his school irrespective of rank, teaching and guiding them compassionately and enthusiastically. He was especially kind to women, children, and to poor folks. In a letter to his mother, written in easily understood kana characters, he spelled out his love for his mother.
One day Abe asked me if I knew anything about the woman Shōin had a secret crush on.
I replied that I was reading the collected works of Shōin but had yet to reach the section that might refer to such a woman. Abe shot back:
“I suspect that the woman was Shōin’s first love.”
As he said that, Abe smiled like a shy young man.
I have a photograph with me taken together with Abe last December in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Wearing a gentle facial expression, he looks very relaxed in this photo. Frankly, it was my very first time to see him look so relaxed. What little tension that constantly existed between Abe and me had completely dissipated, at least at that electric moment.
During the period between his resignation in September 2020 and just before the assassination, Abe was perhaps at the most fulfilling stage of life. Serving the longest period as prime minister in Japanese history (3,188 days in two administrations) had solidified his confidence as a politician. He was dazzling at the height of his life.
During the wake at his home in Tokyo on July 9, his wife Akie, standing beside the body of her husband wearing a calm facial expression, remarked: “I don’t think he really is aware that he is dead.”
“I also believe he died without suffering,” added Akie. Postmortem reports indicated that Abe was killed instantly.
Akie’s words made me think that Abe’s soul is indeed still alive. That thought spurred me on to make a firm resolve that as a journalist who had the good fortune of getting to know him as a leader and a good friend, I have inherited his will to “revive Japan.”
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,008 in the July 21, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)