Shinzo Abe, the runaway favorite to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has big ambitions for Japan’s traditional pacifist diplomacy.
He has made no secret of the fact that one of the main goals of his political career is to release the Japanese people from what he feels is their loathing of nationalism that has been instilled throughout the postwar decades.
“Yes, your own life is precious. But I wonder if (postwar Japanese) have ever imagined that there are values to be protected even by sacrificing their lives” to defend the homeland, Abe wrote in a book published in July.
However, it is not clear how strong he will push for this if he becomes prime minister.
His ultimate goal is to revise the war-renouncing Constitution — still a political taboo due to memories of the militarism before and during World War II — but he’s realistic enough to know this will be extremely tough.
The 51-year-old Abe has been branded a dangerously conservative hawk by detractors, but according to those close to him and some observers, he is fully capable of taking a pragmatic approach to foreign policy.
“I think Mr. Abe will handle (the Sino-Japanese relationship) in a very practical manner,” said Takushoku University professor Satoshi Morimoto, an expert on diplomacy and security issues. “He will give much consideration to Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea.”
Abe is a grandson of the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested as a suspected war criminal but later released without indictment by the U.S.-led Occupation.
Kishi’s unfulfilled dream was to revise the Constitution to make Japan more militarily independent. Abe has repeatedly expressed his eagerness to achieve that dream.
“I think his administration will be centered on a push for national security policies,” Morimoto said.
In addition to revising war-renouncing Article 9, Abe will push for permanent legislation allowing the Self-Defense Forces to be dispatched overseas, and accelerate the buildup of the missile defense system in the face of the North Korean threat, Morimoto predicted.
Some watchers in Asia, particularly in China and South Korea, have already expressed concerns that Abe as prime minister could fuel Japanese nationalism and cause further harm to relations with the two countries.
“Abe’s advocacy of constitutional revision is a pre-announcement of the beginning of Japanese power diplomacy,” warned the Aug. 28 Japanese edition of the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo.
“Through military power that will match its economic status, (Japan) will try to gain a powerful voice in the international community,” the online version of the paper said.
However, contrary to his public image, people who know Abe agree he is far from a fanatic.
He is a common-sense guy who usually tries to make a well-balanced judgment, and can be flexible in real politics, even in diplomacy with China and South Korea, they say.
“I think he is a man who can clearly tell what he can concede and what he cannot concede,” said Yoshihide Suga, a Lower House member and a key aide to Abe.
Abe is capable of avoiding unnecessary friction with China and South Korea, Suga said.
Indeed, Abe has demonstrated diplomatic flexibility in the past, fine-tuning his diplomatic stance while carefully maintaining his image as a tough diplomat.
When he didn’t have a Cabinet portfolio, Abe vocally called for economic sanctions against North Korea. But once he was appointed chief Cabinet secretary last November he followed the government’s official policy of trying not to be overly provocative toward the reclusive state.
Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine this year as he had previously pledged, but avoided going there on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the most problematic day in the eyes of China and South Korea. Neither has he admitted in public that he actually went there earlier in the year, an apparent effort not to stoke the anger simmering in the two neighbors.
“If you say it’s an indication of his (good) sense of balance, yes, I think you are right,” Hakubun Shimomura, another close aide to Abe, said of Abe’s quiet visit to Yasukuni in April.
Unlike Koizumi, Abe will not include visiting Yasukuni in his campaign pledges for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency, Shimomura predicted.
Aside from his pledge to revise the Constitution, it needs to be said that Abe has not proposed any dramatic changes in Japan’s exclusively defensive policy — at least so far.
In another recent book, this one published in April, Abe ruled out Japan developing a nuclear arsenal, saying “it’s an impossible policy choice because (Japan) has renounced it for good under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty system.”
He also admitted that revising the Constitution is politically difficult and may be unachievable while he is in office, because any change would require two-thirds support in both Diet chambers.
“The hurdle is very high. This is not an easy task,” he said Friday at the news conference officially announcing his to run for the LDP presidency.
Aides said Abe will instead try to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 and circumvent the lengthy official procedure for revising the Constitution.
“He is quite a realist. He understands revision will take a very, very long time,” Suga said. “He will do what he can do first, although revision would fulfill his ultimate dream.”
According to the long-standing government interpretation, Article 9 prohibits Japan from exercising the right of collective defense, limiting Japan’s use of force strictly to self-defense. In other words, although the United Nations recognizes the right of member nations to come to the defense of their allies, Japan views itself as being able to use military force only if it comes under direct attack.
Exercising the right to collective defense would permit Japan to fight an enemy of its only military ally — the United States. This would allow Japan to strengthen military cooperation with the U.S., mainly through greater logistic support.
Conservative politicians, including Abe, have long maintained that the Japanese-U.S. alliance won’t work in a military crisis without changing the interpretation of and eventually revising Article 9.
“Without a sense of solidarity backed by trust, a (security) treaty is merely a piece of paper,” Abe argued in his July book.