Abe Shinzo and the end of the Kishi era

Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke with his family and grandson Abe Shinzō.

Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke with his family and grandson Abe Shinzō.

Australia & Japan in the Region

Volume 10, No 7, July 2022

Until he was gunned down during a last-minute campaign stop in the western Japanese city of Nara on 8 July 2022, Shinzō Abe — Japan’s longest serving postwar leader — was a central and dominant figure in Japanese politics. Postwar Japanese history has been punctuated by spectacular instances of murder, arson and religious violence that serve as a stark reminder that parliamentary democracy has not been attained bloodlessly.

Abe was no stranger to this past. In 1960, during massive demonstrations over security treaty revisions, Abe’s grandfather, former premier Nobusuke Kishi, was stabbed by a rightist youth over Kishi’s perceived betrayal of the nation.

Assessments of Abe’s impact on national affairs have been intensely contested. On one hand are those who praise Abe’s accomplishments in national defence and foreign affairs. On the other are detractors who denounce the ethical tawdriness and democratic erosion which marred Abe’s tenure. Yet neither the achievements nor failings of the man tell us anything about the historical forces that made Abe possible, nor how those forces will play out in a future without him.

On the face of it, Abe’s political assassination has a two-fold meaning. The most obvious being it breaks the spell of a decade (2012–2022) in which Abe stamped his authority on Japanese politics through a combination of electoral success and willingness to use the levers of high office to cajole and dominate his opponents. Twice in a decade, Abe marshalled a spectrum of powerful conservative forces behind his cabinet leadership, ending the political instability of a revolving door premiership.

As the international environment changed, Abe displayed considerable skill in galvanising public support for reform of the institutions and laws of national defence and education. As a former premier, Abe remained a powerbroker through his control over the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and allegiance of votaries in the high bureaucracy.

Extending our historical perspective further back, the question posed by Abe’s murder is whether we have reached the end of the period of conservative politics defined by Nobusuke Kishi. A straight line runs between Kishi and the present, linking Japan’s conservative elite to the wartime and imperialist era. A brilliant technocrat, though by no means unpolitical, Kishi was responsible for the coercive effort that steeled Japan through four years of total war. Even as Japan lost the ‘battle of the factories’, Kishi resisted ending the war. As leader of the National Defense Brotherhood, he encouraged scorched earth tactics and sacrificial destruction, going as far as to support a bloody military uprising to halt the surrender. In 1945 Kishi was arrested as a suspected A class war criminal, rehabilitated three years later, and in 1957 named postwar Japan’s ninth premier.

In political style and attitudes, Kishi exemplified the reinventions made by the Japanese wartime elite from the prerogatives of empire and imperial competition to Cold War that crystallized postwar conservatism. Kishi set the trajectory of modern conservative politics in managerial and nondemocratic directions — LDP rule backboned by a system of money politics, bureaucratic interest and partnership with the United States.

In a dramatic demonstration of the past in the present, the motivations of Abe’s assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, intersect with the alliances Kishi cemented between the LDP and international anticommunist and spiritual movements based in Taiwan and Korea, that became integral to Japanese conservative politics. This included the extensive electoral collaboration forged with the Unification Church, known now as Federation of World Peace and Unification.

Arriving on the Japanese political scene in 1993, Abe was disarmingly frank about his political genealogy. As a young parliamentarian, Abe’s connections with Kishi were a valuable asset in a system dominated by political dynasties.

Inheriting Kishi’s skill to cultivate alliances with the nationalist and religious right, Abe portrayed himself as an avowed opponent of the historical viewpoint rooted in the Tokyo Trials, a position which served him well in the years to come. The similarities between Abe and Kishi hide striking differences. Kishi embraced a vision of state and economy that held unfettered capitalism should be strictly controlled to increase wealth and productive power in the name of national unity. In contrast, Abe promoted the financialisation of Japanese markets and embraced deregulation and free market competition as conservative concerns.

Abe’s historical revisionism did not just concern war and empire. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Abe wrote regularly for centre-right journals, utilising Japan’s powerful conservative media to recast the reputation of Kishi’s premiership as one of economic achievement and strong national leadership. It was a startling reinvention for a man whose name was strongly associated with pre-war authoritarianism and corrupt government–business relations for decades.

Abe’s most important innovation was to take Kishi’s political programme, which was tied to the exigencies of occupation and Cold War, and develop them into his own cri de guerre: ‘overcome the postwar regime’. This meant revision of the US-imposed constitutional order to promote a new moral and spiritual infrastructure to sustain remilitarization and reinforce the American position in East Asia. Abe’s call to ‘overcome the postwar regime,’ represented a process of borrowing and forgetting, reconnecting and updating the idée fixe of mid-twentieth century conservatives to the post-Cold War world, most prominently in his well-known tract, Towards the Beautiful Country.

The still unanswered question at the heart of Japanese politics now is whether the ambition of ‘overcoming the post-war regime’ that Abe personified can be maintained by his successors. It is ironic that the premiership — and death — of a man who spent a decade sanitising Kishi’s reputation now marks the end of a period when Kishi served as an important reference for Japanese conservatives. More than thirty years after Kishi’s death, the era of conservative politics dominated by the politics of defeat, military occupation and Cold War seems at last to have finally concluded. Yet the controversial legacies of the Kishi-era will continue to reverberate through Japanese politics for years to come.

Andrew Levidis is Historian of Modern Japan at the Australian National University.

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Image released by the Shinzō Abe Office.

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