STATE FUNERAL FOR SHINZO ABE: OCCASION TO EXPRESS NATION’S PROFOUND GRATITUDE
The state funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is just around the corner (September 27). Looking back over the stellar track record Abe has left as a national and international leader, I cannot help but pay my deepest homage to Abe yet again. He was gunned down on July 8 during a campaign speech in Nara, western Japan. He was 67.
Abe pledged to revive Japan, working hard to restore our pride and dignity as a world leader founded on traditional values. Elected a member of the Lower House of Parliament in August 1993 at age 38, Abe immediately set out to practice what he preached.
When Abe went into politics, the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) was in opposition. A year later, the LDP led by Yohei Kono marched back into power in tandem with the Japan Socialist Party (JSP). Kono immediately started a review of the party platform adopted when the LDP was formed in 1955. The core of that platform was a plank which called for a “self-determined constitution.” It would replace Japan’s American-written pacifist constitution enacted in November 1946.
Abe and a group of senior conservative members of Parliament, including Ichiro Nakagawa, clashed bitterly with Kono and other top party leaders, objecting to their plan to abandon the founding purpose of the LDP—revising the constitution imposed by the American occupiers and introducing Japan’s own. After a fierce battle, Abe and his cohorts managed to retain the original founding principle of their party in the form of a resolution to write a “constitution that would meet the needs of the new times.”
Abe, who described himself as a fighting politician, steadfastly maintained that politicians should be judged on whether or not they “would fight for their causes.” He wrote:‟Politicians should be judged strictly on the policies they commit themselves to—and the ability to execute them. And it goes without saying that they must be prepared for severe criticism at all times.” (Toward A Beautiful Country by Shinzo Abe: Bunshun Shinsho by Bungei Shunju, Tokyo; 2006)
Abe kept insisting that we Japanese must write our own constitution on which all our laws are based, because our basic law must reflect the values that dictate our lives from birth to death as well as our national character.
Abe emphasized that our “peace” constitution fails to deliver that, which was why he regarded as his life’s mission an implementation of a constitutional revision, as he kept repeating time and again. Instead of simply chanting the slogan, he worked hard to come up with the necessary measures, step by step. In May 2007, he managed to enact the National Referendum Law under his first administration (September 2007-August 2008), sealing for the first time the legal hole of a lack of provision for a plebiscite required to revise the constitution.
The second Abe administration got under way on December 26, 2012. On August 8 the following year, his cabinet reached a decision to replace Tsuneyuki Yamamoto, Director-General of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and a staunch adherent to the current constitution, with Ichiro Komatsu, who then was ambassador to France. With Komatsu’s appointment, Abe, who knew a constitutional revision would be enormously time-consuming, sought to enable the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) to exercise the right to collective self-defense through a flexible interpretation of the constitution as the first step toward preparing for a heightening threat from China.
Abe was quoted as saying at the time: “I’ve checked with some internal sources privately and come to conclude that solidarity within the Legislation Bureau is strong. The director-general and his staff would resign en mass should the cabinet change the current interpretation of the constitution, which has long been in place. That would shake the foundation of my cabinet.”
The bureau clung stubbornly to its traditional principle that no part of the constitution should be touched, including the “no war” Article 9, which prohibits Japan from possessing “war potential.” But Abe insisted that the bureau’s primary responsibility should instead be to accurately interpret the law. Convinced that this would not happen under Yamamoto, Abe went ahead and executed the personnel change, exercising his prerogatives as prime minister.
At the time, Yamamoto continued to uncompromisingly oppose the cabinet’s position on the grounds that doing so for the purpose of permitting the JSDF to exercise collective self-defense was unquestionably unconstitutional. The liberal Asahi Shimbun condemned Abe’s intent, maintaining that, if Komatsu, a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat, should be appointed, the long-standing personnel practices of bureaucrats from four ministries—Justice, Finance, Economy, and Internal Affairs—taking turns in becoming the director-general would be violated.
That was indeed a strange assertion. Is allowing bureaucrats from these four different ministries to take turns in serving as a watchdog of our constitution really good for Japan? The important thing was neither allowing bureaucrats from the four ministries to follow the purported order of rotation, nor imposing the peculiar ideologies of the Asahi and the likes of Yamamoto on the state. On the contrary, what counts was creating an environment which would enable Japan to judge and act properly in exercising its right to collective self-defense in times of emergency as provided by domestic and international laws.
In assuming the directorship, Komatsu stressed he would be stating his views “not as a policy specialist but as a legal expert.” In his 560-page book entitled Practical International Law (Shinzan-sha, Tokyo; 2011), Komatsu stresses the importance of respecting international law, describing collective self-defense for the JSDF as similar to “justifiable self-defense for others’ in criminal law” (like an individual taking action to help a neighbor from being killed by a robber) …nothing unusual as a legal system.” He also points out that the United Nations Charter recognizes collective self-defense as “the inherent right” of every UN member.
As was expected, Komatsu was severely criticized by his predecessors one after another. Masahiro Sakata, director-general in 2004-2006, condemned him, maintaining that the state prohibited any change in the interpretation of the constitution. Komatsu dismissed this criticism by citing past records: “More than a decade ago, the government replied formally—in response to a question submitted to the cabinet—that it viewed a change in an interpretation of the constitution as ‘not totally unacceptable.’”
Abe acted swiftly after Komatsu’s appointment in August 2013. Komatsu, who at the time was unwell, went on to tirelessly attend Diet deliberations while seeing a doctor. He died in June 2014. Within a month after the death of his “comrade in arms,” Abe’s cabinet approved a change in constitutional interpretation, enacting national security legislation. This step enabled the JSDF to exercise its right to collective self-defense one year later, in September 2015.
Thanks to the new security law, the US-Japan alliance began to function more closely. Practically every security expert agrees that without this law, protecting the Senkaku Islands and preparing for a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan would be difficult. Abe’s tireless endeavors to push through legislation led directly to Japan being able to demonstrate its military capability to protect its people and territory.
Traditional Fighting Spirit Inherent in Kishi and Abe Families
I recall an anecdote Abe once shared with me about the origin of his fighting spirit. He told me one of his high school teachers once said to his class: “The revised US-Japan Security Treaty is harmful to Japan and should be scrapped on the occasion of its 10th anniversary in 1970.”
“He didn’t name names,” Abe said. “But I was pretty sure he was accusing me of supporting the treaty.” He went on:
“At the time, I honestly didn’t know much about the detail of the treaty, but I looked around and felt I was perhaps the only student who was capable of objecting to what the teacher had to say about the treaty, so I made up my mind to refute his claim.” Abe explained that he asked his teacher what he thought of the economic cooperation beneficial to Japan the treaty stipulated. His teacher suddenly turned pale with embarrassment and changed the subject quickly, said Abe with a wry smile.
As he admitted to me then, Abe at that point had read very little of the treaty. Feeling a strong urge to refute his teacher, however, he put his thoughts into words. Abe got into attack mode because he instinctively sensed the role he had to play at that electric moment. I suspect this fighting spirit had been naturally nurtured in Abe, making him fight from his early days for what he believed was right—a spirit I assume had been a natural legacy of members of the Kishi and Abe political families from his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi down. Kishi became prime minister in 1957 and signed the controversial revision of the treaty in January 1960, only to be forced into resignation six months later. Abe’s father Shintaro, who had married Kishi’s daughter, was foreign minister 1982-86 and aspired to be prime minister. Abe’s great uncle Eisaku Sato, a Nobel Peace laureate, was prime minister 1964-72. I believe it was this fighting spirit that enabled Abe to penetrate the seemingly impregnable wall of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau.
Following the enactment of the security legislation, the media intensified their attacks on Abe, with members of the leading opposition Democratic Party joining leftwing forces outside the Diet in riotous demonstrations. The demonstrators included Jiro Yamaguchi, a law professor at Tokyo’s Hosei University, who famously shouted: “I will cut you down, Abe!” The support rate for the Abe administration plunged by a stunning 13 percentage points following the passage of the legislation. Having survived the fierce battle fought then, today we find ourselves in a position to say with a sigh of relief that Japan was “indeed fortunate to see the security law enacted then.”
What I have stated in this column covers only a very small portion of the long and hard series of battles Abe fought as a champion of democratic values throughout his political career spanning three decades. The more time goes by, the more will he be remembered for his outstanding accomplishments and service as an inspirational leader. On the occasion of his funeral, I would like for as many of we Japanese as possible, regardless of our political differences, to send him off with a deep and solemn bow of gratitude for his wholehearted dedication to make Japan “strong and prosperous.” May he rest in eternal peace.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,017 in the September 29, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)