SHINZO ABE RESTS ETERNALLY ON LUSH GREEN HILL WITH CLEAR WATER
Early on the morning of July 30, I departed from a hotel in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to pay my respects to the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his family graveyard in Yuya, Nagato City.
Heading north on Route 191 on a 90-minute drive with the Sea of Japan in view on my left, Hikojima Island soon came into view. Following the Shimonoseki War of 1863-64, fought between the Choshu Domain and a coalition of naval forces from Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the US over control of the Shimonoseki Straits, a victorious Britain wanted to take possession of this five-square mile island on the south-western tip of Honshu. I had long imagined it to be much smaller and more detached. To the contrary, the island, which overlooks the straits, was a vital strategic point that would have allowed Britain to control the whole of the straits. Some 50,000 people lived on the island in its prime, although its population is now down to some 23,000.
Shinsaku Takasugi, a young student of the Shokason Academy in Hagi, was put in charge of negotiating the postwar settlements with the British diplomatic corps. [Editor’s Note: The academy was originally headed by Shoin Yoshida (1830-59), an inspirational teacher to many of the leading figures behind the Meiji Restoration of 1868.] Although Shinsaku was selected to negotiate for his clan at 24, the clan had him adopted by Bizen Shishido, a powerful senior clan retainer, for added prestige. To commence the negotiations, Shinsaku climbed aboard the British flagship, dressed up in a black eboshi ceremonial hat and pure white silk underclothes.
From Shinsaku’s attire, Ernest Satow, a British diplomat then posted in Edo (now Tokyo) who served as an interpreter at the negotiations, sensed the desperate power of a young samurai who was determined to die if he failed his clan. Satow was quoted as describing Shinsaku as “poised magnanimously like a Mao (Satan) unafraid of anyone,” despite representing the loser in the battle. (Tatsuya Naramoto in Shinsaku Takasugi, Chuko Shinsho, Tokyo; 1986).
Abe was the only postwar Japanese prime minister who remained unintimidated by China. The proud attitude of Shinsaku Takasugi, who unflinchingly dealt with the negotiations, clearly traced its origin to the trust he had in himself and his mother country. His attitude overlaps with what Abe demonstrated in his diplomatic dealings with China.
Told his clan had to concede Hikojima, Shinsaku gave a flat no for the answer by first explaining the origin of Japan, including the mythological descent to earth of Ninigi-no-Mikoto (a deity in Japanese mythology who was a grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu), the eastern expedition of a god three generations later, and his assuming the throne in 660 BC as the first emperor of Japan—Emperor Jimmu. Passionately expounding on Japanese history as depicted in the Kojiki (Records of the Ancient Matters, compiled in 712), Shinsaku put up an impressive argument against the demand, emphasizing that Hikojima was part of Japan’s sacred land and that no part of it, no matter how small, would be conceded. What would have happened to Japan had Hikojima been wrested away then? We Japanese should never forget to thank Shinsaku for his firm resolve to not give away Hikojima. Taking a fresh look at Hikojima, protected by the spirit and determination of young Shinsaku 160 years ago, I held my breath again at the depth of the color of the sea surrounding the island.
Authentic Home of Yamato
En route to my destination, I passed by the Doigahama Anthropological Museum. The Jomon people inhabited Japan more than 10,000 years ago, and were later followed by the Yayoi people, who are believed to have lived a bountiful life raising crops and catching fish. The museum has in storage some 300 human bones of those found in almost perfect shape who lived during of that era. Our ancestors were living peacefully and prosperously in Japan before recorded time.
Driving through regions bearing unusual Japanese names, such as “Kottoi,” and entering the 1,780-meter (5,840 ft) Tsunoshima Bridge over the cobalt blue Sea of Japan, I saw a bay gently spreading out in front of me. This was Yuya Bay, with its indigo waters under the summer sun. The sea was shining in that same color of the suit Abe liked to wear—bright as his crystal-clear mind.
After passing over the bridge, the car turned left, now entering a narrower long road which featured single-story or two-story private wooden homes on both sides with spacious gardens and colorful summer flowers in full bloom, small rivers pouring into the sea, and rich green rice paddies with small hills behind. This is how the ancient home of Yamato must have looked.
The narrow road gradually began sloping upward. At the end of the road, atop a hill where members of our group congregated, we saw a wide spread of land in front where the graves of three generations of the Abe family are located. Parking in the shade of tall trees to avoid the glaring sun, we climbed up stone stairs to find a line of large stepping-stones leading to the graves. To my right was a washbasin made by hollowing out a large stone, filled with clear overflowing water. It was a hot day and large hydrangeas nearby seemed to be saying they were thirsty. Forming a cup with my palms, I took a few scoops of the water and sprinkled the flowers.
In the visitors’ notebook at the temple were many pages of records of visits. Viewing the graves from the bookkeeping office, I saw a man place a bouquet of flowers and then fondly rub the tombstone. I sensed a flood of feelings for the deceased as I watched this man standing alone. In the spacious family gravesite, there at the time were only this senior gentleman and the people from our small group. And yet, I knew there were many people elsewhere, not just in Japan alone but the world over, who must be mourning Abe’s loss with feelings similar to ours—people who have yet to manage holding back their tears but have determined to carry out the intentions of the late prime minister.
Exchanging bows, the gentleman and I struck up a brief conversation. He said he was visiting from Tokyo and that he was a close college friend of Abe’s, remarking: “I came here, as I thought he must be feeling lonely being by himself…”
Resting together with Abe at the family graveyard are his grandfather Hiroshi, and his father Shintaro, who was a foreign minister. On his burial day, July 24, Abe’s wife Akie stated: “I am very grateful that many younger people in Japan are voicing their determination to carry on my husband’s will—in the same way Shoin’s disciples carried his thoughts to posterity.” She said the same thing to me when I met her the day before my trip to Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Kneeling before his grave, I reported to Abe on my current feelings: “Mr. Prime Minister, even though Japan is now faced with many difficult challenges, I will not flinch. I will carry out to the end what I decide to be best for the nation. I will not give up even if I should fail. And so long as I can keep up the will to fight on, I am convinced I will be able to overcome any obstacle no matter what may happen. And I pledge to spare no effort toward that end.”
We average citizens naturally do not have the power Abe had, but I believe we can reach our goals if each of us sets high aspirations in life and regularly communicate and support each other. By doing so, I am sure we will be able to safeguard the values dear to us and to our nation itself. Where there is a will, there is always a way, I believe.
That said, I wondered that day if the prime minister might not be thirsty in the blistering heat of this year’s summer. That was what was worrying me that day.
Thoughtful Words of Mrs. Abe
After spending a while at the Abe family gravesite, we headed for Hagi City, where we paid a visit to the Shoin Shrine. The Shokason Academy is located here. Shoin managed the school 1857-58 before he was beheaded for “treason” against the shogunate government at 29. I had thought the shrine, which embraces the academy within its expansive premises, and the shrine itself to be much smaller. I had heard that it was initially made up of just one small room with eight “tatami” straw mats and that Shoin’s disciples contributed funds to build an adjoining ten-mat room because the academy was not large enough to accommodate his 90-plus disciples simultaneously. The truth of the matter is that the shrine now is in a vast setting.
It was through the initiative of the people of Hagi that the shrine was created in 1907. Over the years the shrine has kept expanding, solidly sustained by the people to whom Shoin is a national hero. Without Shoin the Meiji Reform of 1868 would not have materialized. I was given a chance to sit inside the academy adjacent to the old house of the Sugi family, Shoin’s birthplace. As I sat up straight on the straw mat floor listening to a lecture by honorary chief priest Shusei Ueda, I felt as if I could hear Shoin’s message to each of his disciples, who are said to have totaled 92, including Hirobumi Itoh, who became Japan’s first prime minister in 1886. Shoin left behind many letters for Shinsaku. On one occasion, Shinsaku asked his master where a samurai should die. Shoin replied, in essence:
“The right place for a samurai to die is where he has reached by exerting himself to the fullest extent.”
I wonder what Abe’s answer would have been. Time and again over the past year since he was shot dead last July 8, I have agonized over what Abe was thinking at the very moment of his death. Amid various speculations about his assassination, such as the real assassin remains un-apprehended, LDP Lower House member Hisashi Matsumoto, a medical doctor and a paramedic specialist in his own right, wrote in the September 2023 issue of Seiron, a monthly published by the conservative Sankei Shimbun:
“If the subclavian artery is damaged by more than half and a massive bleeding occurs within the right thoracic cavity, the amount of blood ejection necessary to maintain cerebral circulation would be lost in less than 30 seconds…Regarding the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it is a medical fact that the anatomical organ damage caused by the gunshot and the resulting massive bleeding led to cardiac arrest.”
I remember the words Mrs. Abe uttered shortly after a team of doctors pronounced Abe dead last July 8: “I don’t think my husband knows he is dead.” Now I remind myself afresh that Abe died almost instantly.
“The right place for a samurai to die is…” Abe died at 67 after having gone above and beyond in his role as a political leader. He lived to the fullest, fought through, and was done. And he hopefully died without feeling any pain. By accepting these new facts, the unresolved pain in my heart has at least begun to slowly ease. been resolved.
（Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,060 in the August 10, 2023 issue of
The Weekly Shincho）