SHINZO ABE: SEASONED STRATEGIST WHO FOUGHT TO REVIVE JAPAN
In the following eulogy marking the first anniversary of his assassination last July 8, journalist Yoshiko Sakurai depicts former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a great friend, warm human being, clever strategist, and an optimist who staunchly believed in Japan’s bright future.
Shinzo Abe fondly referred to his grandfather and former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi as “our jiisan (grandpa).” Kishi risked his life in revising the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960 amid waves of demonstrators who daily converged around the Diet building in Nagata-cho, bitterly opposing the revision.
Kishi loved little Shinzo, who then was barely six years old. One day, Shinzo was home with Kishi, straddling his grandpa’s back. But when he nonchalantly chanted the then popular leftwing slogan “Ampo hantai!” (“I oppose the treaty!”), Kishi obviously didn’t like it very much and asked his grandson: “Can’t you say ‘Ampo sansei (I’m for the treaty), Shinzo?’”
Abe adored Kishi and put him on a pedestal. (Kishi passed away in 1987 at 90.) Kishi’s memoir My Youthful Days (Kosaido, Tokyo; 1983), which he started penning towards the end of 1945 while still being held at Sugamo Prison as a suspected Class A war criminal and finished around mid-1948, impresses the reader with his strong affection for Abe. Its heartwarming description of his hometown of Yamaguchi, and his relatives, teachers, friends, and acquaintances vividly reflects how people lived at the time, how his relatives helped each other, how unafraid everybody was of self-sacrifices, and how ready they were to support each other. They were exactly the kind of people who Abe would often describe to me as ordinary citizens who were living the traditional virtues of Japan.
That Kishi, who was generally regarded as aloof and inaccessible, was actually rather compassionate and loved children, is conveyed throughout the entire book. As a fourth grader, he transferred from a grade school in Nishi-tabuse, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to Uchi-yamashita Grade School in Okayama Prefecture—a step needed to enter the prestigious Okayama Junior High School—thanks to the good offices of Matsusuke Sato, his uncle who was a professor at (renamed Okayama Medical Universicy later). Two baby girls were born to the Sato family while Kishi was in Okayama—Hiroko, who later married Kishi’s younger brother Eisaku Sato (who was prime minister 1964-72), and Masako. Young Kishi was delighted.
“Because I loved little children, I had a good time carrying Hikoro on my back frequently as I played with her,” Kishi wrote. I can easily imagine Kishi, never very sturdy as a grade schooler, having fun carrying a little baby girl on his back.
Matsusuke would often complain to his wife, noting that she should not make a young boy like Nobusuke carry a little girl on his back, but the future prime minister was happy to do so.
Just like his grandpa, who enjoyed taking care of little children despite his “aloof and inaccessible” image, Shinzo himself happily mingled with children looking after victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. His attitude not only mirrors the gentleness of his grandfather but tells me he would have been a great father if he and his wife Akie had had their own children.
I suppose the great trust and expectation they each have placed on our next generation to carry Japan in the right direction is the link that ties Kishi’s uncle Matsusuke, Kishi himself, and Shinzo Abe together.
Matsusuke was an extraordinary educator. He not only took care of Kishi and later his two elder sisters and promising young boys and girls among his relatives, but was always on the lookout for talented individuals, willingly paying for their education out of his own pocket. When he died suddenly at 35, wrote Kishi, Matsusuke had not a penny left in his savings after having spent “all his financial resources on our education.”
Richly benefiting from Matsusuke’s affection and generous support, Kishi himself firmly determined to build a Japan for the future in the same way as his uncle. It is not an exaggeration to state that Japan’s world-class social security system is based on the original plans drafted by Kishi, who was also credited with founding the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1943.
The origin of Abe’s politics was an earnest expectation of our younger generation to shoulder responsibility for the future of Japan. In a monumental address in 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of 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 for it.”
During one of his appearances on my “Genron” Internet news show on December 3, 2021, Abe remarked:
“Compared with my youthful days, far more members of the younger generation today are interested in doing work that is useful for society, rather than being consumed with career advancement. Therefore, I feel the future of this nation is quite promising. With these young people in mind, I wish to create a society that is always open and full of opportunities in which they can make full use of their ability.
I think Kishi and Abe were very much alike at home, too. Writes Kishi’s eldest son Nobukazu of Kishi: “He was often criticized for one reason or another he never talked politics at home and always put on a good face when he came home, regardless of how unpleasant his day at work may have been.”
Much like his beloved jiisan, Abe was absolutely considerate and affectionate to his wife Akie and mother Yoko. I fondly recall a reception held on February 7, 2018 in honor of Birei Kin, a Taiwanese-born, naturalized commentator who was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette for her contribution to Japan-Taiwan relations.
With Ms. Kin seated at the head of the main table, Abe, his wife, and I sat to her left. Also at the table were Reitaku University Director Mototaka Hiroike and his wife, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and his wife Mariko, and a good-natured lumber executive and his wife. Our cheerful conversation inevitably shifted to North Korea, with Abe remarking:
“I suspect Kim Jong-un is too stressed out to sleep at night these days.”
I felt the same way. At the time, because of Pyongyang’s stubborn refusal to release Japanese citizens it had abducted, Japan had just shifted its policy toward North Korea from dialogue and pressure to strictly pressure alone. Japan took the leadership at the United Nations in adopting tough resolutions that imposed sanctions against Pyongyang. Driven into a corner, Kim very naturally must have been beside himself with anxiety.
Akie abruptly asked her husband: “How do you know Kim is unable to sleep at night? No one would be there to see whether or not he’s sleeping.”
All of us froze in silence for a moment. Why Akie asked that question wasn’t difficult to understand, but then Abe was only figuratively referring to Kim’s failure to sleep under the circumstances. So thinking, I watched with keen interest how the prime minister would answer his wife.
Abe looked at his wife lovingly with a gentle smile on his face. He then turned slowly toward her, put his left hand on the back of her chair, and started answering her question, slightly stooped forward as if to embrace her:
“You see, Akie. Kim nowadays is subjected to stern sanctions from around the world. He is in big trouble because he is under tremendous pressure. The North Korean economy is really in poor shape and Kim cannot feed his people sufficiently. On top of that, his country’s relationship with China hasn’t been going well…”
We saw Akie nod to Abe’s charmingly persuasive tone—a scene that made me imagine this sort of dialogue to be nothing unusual when Abe is home with Akie.
A little before this episode, Akie brought up the topic of the Moritomo Gakuen cronyism scandal that allegedly involved the Abes. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told her story. After all, she was a victim of accusations that were—more than biased reporting—outright lies. I looked at Abe while listening to Akie. Still smiling, he was looking straight into her eyes, as if to say, “How can I help you, my dear?” His was a look that reflected his firm resolve to protect his wife at all costs. I strongly believe that Akie was Abe’s most important comrade in this world—someone whose peace of mind he was thoroughly committed to safeguard.
I recall a conversation I had with Abe last in December of the year before his unexpected demise. We were having dinner in his hometown in Yamaguchi when he told me out of the blue:
“I think we first met in connection with the ‘comfort women’ issue.”
Despite the fact that we had by then met with each other a number of times, I didn’t quite remember when our first encounter was. As for the timing of our first meeting, around that time I frequently met with Shoichi Nakagawa, a conservative member of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party who served as Minister of Finance 2008-2009. We exchanged our views on such matters as the Chinese and South Korean fabrications of the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army, the Korean “comfort women,” the “Nanjing Massacre,” and other unresolved World War II issues. But I was not certain as to exactly when I first had the honor of meeting Abe.
Much later, I read a book compiled by Abe and his young LDP colleagues entitled Questions about History Textbooks: How Young Parliamentarians View the Issues (Tenkaisha Publishing Co., Tokyo: 1997). That was when I finally came to understand what Abe wanted to say about history textbooks as Prime Minister. The 518-page book was put together by the “Young Parliamentarians’ Association Committed to Considering Japan’s Future and History Education.” Abe’s remarks are recorded in the volume.
“In a democracy, ‘freedom of speech’ is guaranteed in order for the democratic system to function normally,” Abe stated, referring to an incident that happened to me in January that same year (1997).
I was scheduled to speak at the Miura City Chamber of Commerce in Kanagawa Prefecture on January 29, but the Human Rights Center of that prefecture had taken issue with my earlier remarks about “comfort women,” requesting that the organizers pick a different speaker. They bowed to the Center’s pressure and canceled my presentation one day before, on January 28. This boycott, initiated by the Center, later spread nationwide to conservative corporate associations, leading to the cancellations of my speeches and lectures. At the time, I sternly protested that it was a violation of freedom of speech to try to silence me, although I emphasized that anyone was free to criticize my remarks. Abe wrote:
“Ms. Sakurai made the statement in question last October during a lecture sponsored by the Municipal Board of Education, Yokohama City, in which she said: ‘Within the scope of my journalistic research, I have not seen any evidence of the Japanese army having coerced women into service in military brothels…’ I learned about the actions taken by the Human Rights Center against Ms. Sakurai in the Yomiuri and the Sankei. With the so-called ‘comfort women’ being included in all junior high school history textbooks starting this year, I was already well aware of the forces aggressively promoting this issue, but as a politician, I feel a strong sense of crisis that they have now moved to the point of openly suppressing free speech.”
Abe acted quickly, setting up the afore-mentioned parliamentarians’ association with Nakagawa as its head just one month after the Human Rights Center started its nationwide campaign to silence me. Abe managed to bring together 107 young parliamentarian members—84 from the Lower House and 23 from the Upper House—by volunteering to become secretary-general. The members met once a week from 9 p.m. for a study session.
Politicians generally are invited to evening gatherings, so Abe deliberately chose late hours for his associates so as to allow a larger attendance. The association not only invited conservative opinion leaders, such as Tsutomu Nishioka and Shiro Takahashi, but liberals like Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Yohei Kono, who adamantly believed the “comfort women” had been coerced into prostitution by the Japanese army.
Abe Cleared Japan of False Accusations
As early as 1997, Abe and the young parliamentarians declared as “absolute fabrications” the assertions by self-styled journalist Seiji Yoshida that he was in charge of recruiting young Korean women on Korea’s Chejudo island during the war. The Asahi had run a series of articles based on Yoshida’s false claims. Seventeen years later, in 2014, the Asahi formally and belatedly withdrew the pieces in question with an apology.
Looking back over the sequence of events that developed since we first met, I began to wonder if Abe meant we were “comrades in arms” when he told me in late 2021 that we met “in connection with the ‘comfort women’ issue.” My interpretation may sound presumptuous, but I genuinely felt that he was graciously including me in the same category as those who had fought with him for other causes as well, such as the freeing of Japanese abductees from North Korea. Among those wo worked closely with him to try and bring home the abductees were Shigeru Yokota, Kayoko Arimoto, Shigeo Iizuka, Tsutomu Nishioka, and Rui Abiru—members of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.
Abe was a political leader who always fought with a solid strategy in mind. Setting a goal first, he would seek to increase the number of friends and supporters, with whom he would learn and grow together. Only after that did he take concrete actions to achieve his goal. The decisions he made and actions he took were simply brilliant. It was Abe who exposed the Asahi’s lies, clearing Japan of false accusations regarding the coercive recruitment of Korean women for prostitution.
Abe relished a good fight and fought fiercely, but behind his fighting spirit was strong will power generated by innate optimism. He never got down, and he never gave up. The successful registration of the sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution as UNESCO World Heritage Sites is a case in point. South Korea tenaciously opposed the registration, claiming that Korean laborers who had migrated to Japan before and during the last war were subjected to forced labor. The truth of the matter was that, far from forced labor, Japanese corporations, including Mitsui Mine and Japan Steel, offered Korean workers authentic employment contracts under which Korean and Japanese workers were treated equally.
And yet, our Foreign Ministry bowed to persistent South Korean pressure and agreed to incorporate the expression “forced to work”—which clearly meant “forced labor”—into diplomatic papers.
Ms. Koko Kato, a former Abe cabinet advisor who for 17 years endeavored to have the Meiji industrial sites registered as World Heritage Sites, was so disappointed with the prospects of registration she decided to call Abe, her childhood friend. Kato quoted Abe as telling her: “Don’t let them get you down, Koko. Let’s tell our side of the story.”
Suffering a defeat was not the end of the world, as far as Abe was concerned. He thought Japan would be able to regain lost ground by disseminating accurate information across the globe regarding the Meiji industrial sites. Unlike journalists, politicians must keep producing concrete results. The results may not be perfect, but they will try harder to regain lost ground the next time around. The important thing is to keep moving forward: that was what Abe constantly kept harping on.
In retrospect, as a journalist, I am afraid I was inclined to make demands on him that were sometimes too unreasonable. When he visited Yasukuni Shrine as a sitting prime minister in December 2013, I heartly thanked him for the visit but requested at the same time that he visit Yasukuni in all four seasons going forward. But he indicated that he felt one visit during his term of office would be sufficient to “to express my respect to the spirits of those enshrined at Yasukuni who died serving our country.”
Seeing him visit Yasukuni many times after resigning as prime minister in September 2020, I reflected on my failure to have given thought to how strong the opposition must have been from the international community while in office, especially from the US where a formidable barrier of understanding existed, regarding Yasukuni. I have concluded that the important thing is for us all to keep fighting for a brighter Japan, although methods may vary, and that this should be the pledge we ought to make to the late prime minister, who untiringly fought for Japan on all fronts, never losing hope, never ceasing to inspire us.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,056 in the July 13, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)