Defying the Media Mantra of a ‘Great Leader’
Tokyo protest against Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (inset) in 2015. (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photos: Reuters)
In death as in life, the late prime minister Shinzo Abe divides the nation of Japan. Following Abe’s assassination on a public street in the city of Nara in broad daylight last month, the Japanese government has decided on an official state funeral for Abe to be held on 27 September. The public in Japan is increasingly voicing its opposition to this state funeral, the first such event to be held in this country in more than a half-century. Why should the death of an ultra-nationalist, far-right leader whose policies were so detrimental to democracy in Japan and who was so lowly regarded by so many citizens be honored with taxpayer money? they demand to know.
Their pointed criticism of Abe’s toxic legacy now reflects just how unpopular he was in his lifetime. It many ways, the public in Japan is pushing back against a mantra repeated by Japanese officialdom and much of the poodle press in Japan since Abe’s death that he was someone whose passing deserves the utmost deference. The media mantra in Japan, both spoken and subtle, goes like this: Shinzo Abe was our dear great leader. You should respect and admire him.
Yes, Abe was one of the most influential politicians in Japan since World War II; he certainly threw his political weight around wherever and whenever he could. Yes, he was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s postwar history (nine years total in office over two separate terms; ponder that). And yes, he garnered far more respect on the international stage than he ever held domestically in Japan.
At the same time, it is safe to say, Abe was also the most despised and demonstrated-against leader in modern Japanese history due to his views and actions that can only be classified as neo-fascist in nature. Abe surrounded himself with aides and supporters on the extreme-right end of the political spectrum and he openly pandered to his far-right base. It was not uncommon over the years, in fact, for Abe to be publicly denounced and defaced by critics in Japan as a Japanese version of Donald Trump or even as a little Hitler. Which begs the question: What, exactly, does the Japanese corporate-dominated news media want us to respect and admire about someone like that? Let us discount the ways….
The Numbers Game — Abe is credited most often with strengthening Japan’s economy via a set of policies that he boldly named after himself. He called it “Abenomics” (Abe + “nomics”, get it?). Think of it as basically a rip-off of “Reaganomics” or “Thatchernomics,” named after former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, two leaders whose so-called trickle-down policies favoring the wealthy class did much to gut the economies of their respective countries over time and throw poor people to the streets. Abe couldn’t even come come up with something original as the showpiece of his governmental platforms in Japan; he had to copycat it.
Abenomics basically consisted of “three arrows” or angles: fiscal stimulus through government spending, monetary easing from the Bank of Japan and structural reforms. Yet even here, Abenomics never lived up to the hype as the savior of Japan’s decades-long economic doldrums and was never without controversy. So, why must we respect and admire the late Shinzo Abe for that?
Gender Parity — For Abe’s controversial economic policies to fly, he needed to get at least the other half of Japan’s population out of the home and into the workforce. Enter “womenomics,” Abe’s plan for gender parity that was creatively named (ahem) after Abenomics, his economic plan. It was not going to be easy to carry out, considering that the staunchly conservative ruling party to which Abe belonged, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had long been a bastion of sexism and gender discrimination — a closed world where Japanese men played the role of loyal company soldiers and marched off daily to the offices and workplaces of the nation and where Japanese woman stayed home and made babies and boosted the rapidly aging population with fresh young faces.
But Abe’s plan aimed at gender parity mostly failed. As of 2020, when Abe suddenly retired from office due ostensibly to health reasons, his “womenomics” plan had gotten nowhere near the lofty aims he often touted. He had shown his true colors all along on the issue of parity by opposing any change to a Japanese law that requires every woman to take the husband’s surname in Japan when she marries. And at a time when the Japanese populace was having a national discussion about the possibility of a woman serving as emperor in the future, Abe was for a male-only royal lineage.
His “womenomics” plan was all a smokescreen, at best, that covered up the deep misogyny in Japanese society and in his own mind. So, why in the world would we need to respect and admire the late Shinzo Abe for that?
Negating History — All through his career in politics, Abe had no shame about denying the facts of history, especially pertaining to Japan’s war crimes in Asian countries before and during World War II. Like Jewish Holocaust deniers in Europe, Abe and his ilk in Japan denied that Japanese military troops massacred Chinese civilians at Nanjing, China in 1937, contradicting a global historical record that confirms the slaughter. Abe dismissed the notion of women in various Asian countries being enslaved by Japan’s military during World War II as well, despite plenty of historical evidence to the contrary.
Much like Vladimir Putin does today in Russia, Abe in Japan wanted to erase Japan’s postwar legacy as a supposedly weak nation pursuing peace and replace it with a renewed sense of robust patriotism that all Japanese citizens must feel toward their country. Just a few years ago, Abe’s denialism was even seen in the USA as a “serious threat” to U.S.-Japan relations.
Abe, like many Japanese right-wing extremists, often seemed to enjoy pissing off other Asian nations, China and the Koreas in particular, as the much-hated enemies of Japan during earlier wars. In his capacity as an LDP party leader and as prime minister, Abe publicly attended Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on several occasions to pay respect to the spirits of Japan’s war dead, among them being several convicted war criminals who are enshrined there as gods.
Such a visit by Japanese leaders to the controversial Shinto religious shrine never fails to raise the ire of Japan’s Asian neighbors, and Abe especially seemed to relish straining relations with them by repeatedly paying official visits there. As a result, there were no shortage of anti-Abe protests in South Korea, China and other Asian nations in recent years.
In 2006 Abe appealed to a rising Japanese sense of nationalist identity when he published a book titled Utsukushii Kuni e (Toward a Beautiful Nation) that became a Japanese bestseller. Consider it the Japanese politico-literary version of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” cult following. Why should we respect and admire Shinzo Abe for doing all of this?
Calling Mr. Clean — Far from being a politician whose hands were unstained by corruption and dirt, Abe was dogged by several scandals throughout his political life, including during his tenure as prime minister. One of the more prominent ones was the Moritomo Gakuen scandal of 2017, in which a right-wing educational institution in Osaka was found to have gotten a sweetheart land deal from the Japanese government while Abe was prime minister. Abe’s wife, Akie, was to have become the honorary principal of the new school.
Abe denied that he and his wife had anything to do with the land deal; he told the Japanese Diet (parliament) that he would quit if anybody could prove that he or his wife were involved in the Moritomo scandal. That didn’t stop Abe from calling a snap election not long afterward as a perceived way to escape the scandal and to strengthen his political hand. The eventual fallout from the Moritomo scandal: Abe continued on as prime minister, a Finance Ministry bureaucrat committed suicide seemingly as some kind of patsy or fall guy, and no one was ultimately held criminally responsible for the wrongdoing.
Another scandal arose in 2020 in which Abe’s official support organization was found to have been illicitly linked to lavish cherry blossom-viewing parties held annually in Tokyo as a way of spreading Abe’s political influence. The events were being investigated for possible violations of the Public Offices Election Law, which bans making an endowment to voters, and the Political Fund Control Law for failing to report the expenditure for such events. Abe, under intense questioning in parliament, dodged the questions and set himself up for possible perjury charges. Nothing ever came of it.
The question yet remains: Why should we respect and admire Shinzo Abe for all this?
Pressuring the Press — Abe was no friend of the news media in Japan, definitely not the more liberal-oriented news media organizations. And he had no hesitation in remaking Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, in his nationalistic image. NHK today, thanks to Abe’s influence, looks more like a government propaganda machine than the genuine news outlet it used to be.
The Japanese government under Abe came down hard at times on news media organizations. The result was a Fourth Estate in Japan that grew to be meeker than it ever was and media self-censorship becoming more common. Japan’s global press freedom ranking plummeted during the Abe years to new lows.
In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Abe administration bulldozed through parliament a state secrets bill that was supposedly designed to prevent classified information from being leaked to other countries. Under the measure, government whistleblowers in Japan could be imprisoned for 10 years for leaking classified information and journalists could be jailed for five years for asking a whistleblower about something that is a state secret — even if the journalist had no idea it was a state secret at the time. Passage of the law by the government under Abe in 2013 was met by protests of thousands of Japanese citizens.
There are some who say that freedom of the press exists in Japan in name only. If that is true, then the government under Abe was to blame for intimidating and pushing the press in Japan as an institution to censor itself. Why would anyone want to respect and admire Shinzo Abe for that?
Constitution Change — Most importantly of all, the late prime minister Abe had set as his top priority the revising and weakening of Japan’s current constitution, which was drafted by both Japanese and Americans in the ashes of World War II. Abe’s stated intent was to water down or do away with Article 9 of the constitution entirely. It is this article, above all others in Japan’s constitution, that has prevented the country from sending a military to war at any time since the 1940s.
The full text of the article, consisting of two simple paragraphs, reads as follows:
“ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
“In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
Under intense U.S. pressure since the 1950s, however, Japan did begin to rebuild its military, the Self-Defense Forces, but was always constrained by the existence of Article 9 from being used explicitly for war purposes. The Japanese constitution stands unique in the world: It is among the very few constitutions that reject militarism and embrace pacificism as a core tenet. Japan’s constitution is also reportedly the oldest unamended constitution in the world; no amendments have been made to its text in more than seven decades.
Abe, as extreme-rightist prime minister, set out to change that situation. He foresaw a Japan that was remilitarized and unrestrained, able to face down its geopolitical threats in the Far East Asian region wherever they arose. Other Japanese citizens who were old enough to remember the carnage of the Second World War, on the other hand, saw Japan reverting to wartime insanity and a forced patriotic subservience once again.
In 2014 Abe partially succeeded in reaching his goal: During a meeting of his cabinet, it was decided unilaterally that Japan’s constitution was being “reinterpreted” and the Self-Defense Forces now less restrained by Article 9.
The next year in 2015, the writing was on the wall for Article 9: That summer, Abe pushed through the lower house of parliament a group of bills that let Japan’s armed forces defend an ally under attack — a radical shift in the Japanese postwar security policy. Abe’s brazen push to singlehandedly revise the war-renouncing tenets of the Japanese constitution were met with massive public protests in Japan (see above photo).
The assassination of Abe in July 2022 stopped, for now, any further tampering with Japan’s Article 9. But it is expected that some pro-Abe elements within the government will continue to carry out Abe’s wish some time in the future. Even with Abe now gone from the scene, the threat to the existence of Article 9 is still very real.
For all the above reasons and many more, people in Japan are now defying the corporate news media mantra of the late prime minister Shinzo Abe as a great and admirable leader. Influential, he was. But great? No way. True greatness is reserved for that small group of world-class leaders like the late Nelson Mandela of South Africa who stand up for the best of humanity and who unite people, not bitterly divide them as Abe did.
So, let us close here with a counter-mantra to use anytime we encounter the lingering drumbeat of nationalism and ignorance concerning Japan’s recently departed leader. Repeat three times:
Shinzo Abe was not a great leader.
Shinzo Abe was not a great leader.
Shinzo Abe was not a great leader.
Now, go out and spread this new mantra far and wide. Tell the truth to people about who the late prime minister of Japan really was and what he stood for. Maybe then we can begin to repair the damage done over the years and see Japan travel a new road of peace and prosperity in the international community of nations.