On Jan. 1, The Japan Times’ lead story was “Summer poll to keep Abe in check.” It made the argument that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party alliance falls short of a majority in the Upper House, so until elections happen this summer he lacks a “full-fledged administration” to carry out a conservative agenda.
I believe this is over-optimistic. The LDP alliance already has 325 seats in Japan’s overwhelmingly powerful Lower House — safely more than the 320 necessary to override Upper House vetoes. Moreover, as Japan’s left was decimated in December’s elections, about three-quarters of the Lower House is in the hands of avowed hard-right conservatives. Thus Abe already has his mandate.
So this column will focus on what Abe, only the second person in postwar Japanese history given another chance at PM, is up to this time.
Recall how Abe fluffed his first chance between 2006-7 — so badly that he made it onto a list of “Japan’s top 10 most useless PMs” (Light Gist, Sept. 27, 2011) on these pages. The Cabinet he selected was a circus of embarrassments (e.g., after his corrupt agriculture minister claimed ¥5 million for “office utility expenses,” the replacement then claimed expenses for no office at all, and the next replacement only lasted a week), with gaffe after gaffe from an elitist old-boy club whittling away Abe’s approval ratings.
Abe himself was famously incapacitated with diarrhea (spending hours a day on the john) as well as logorrhea, where his denials of wartime sexual slavery (i.e., the “comfort women”) were denounced even by Japan’s closest geopolitical allies. Finally, after the LDP was trounced in a 2007 Upper House election, Abe suddenly resigned one week after reshuffling his Cabinet, beginning a pattern of a one-year tenure for all subsequent Japanese PMs.
However, Abe did accomplish one important conservative reform in 2006: amending the Fundamental Law of Education. The law now clearly states that a right to education in Japan is restricted to “us Japanese citizens” (ware ware Nihon kokumin — i.e., excluding foreigners), while references to educational goals developing individuality have been removed in favor of education that transmits “tradition,” “culture” and “love of nation.”
In other words, building on Japan’s enforced patriotism launched by former PM Keizo Obuchi from 1999 (e.g., schoolteachers and students are now technically required to demonstrate public respect to Japan’s flag and national anthem or face official discipline), vague mystical elements of “Japaneseness” are now formally enshrined in law to influence future generations.
That’s one success story from Abe’s rightist to-do list. He has also called for the “reconsideration” of the 1993 and 1995 official apologies for wartime sexual slavery (even pressuring NHK to censor its historical reportage on it in 2001), consistently denied the Nanjing Massacre, advocated children’s textbooks instill “love” of “a beautiful country” by omitting uglier parts of the past, and declared his political mission as “recovering Japan’s independence” (dokuritsu no kaifuku) in the postwar order.
Although LDP leaders were once reticent about public displays of affection towards Japan’s hard right, Abe has been more unabashed. Within the past six months he has made two visits to controversial Yasukuni Shrine (once just before becoming LDP head, and once, officially, afterwards). Scholar Gavan McCormack unreservedly calls Abe “the most radical of all Japanese post-1945 leaders.”
Now Abe and his minions are back in power with possibly the most right-wing Cabinet in history. Academic journal Japan Focus last week published a translation of an NGO report (japanfocus.org/events/view/170) outlining the ultraconservative interest groups that Abe’s 19 Cabinet members participate in. Three-quarters are members of groups favoring the political re-enfranchisement of “Shinto values” and Yasukuni visits, two-thirds are in groups for remilitarizing Japan and denying wartime atrocities, and half are in groups seeking sanitation of school textbooks, adoption of a new “unimposed” Constitution, and protection of Japan from modernizing reforms (such as separate surnames for married couples) and outside influences (such as local suffrage for foreign permanent residents).
Abe alone is a prominent leader (if not a charter member) of almost all the ultra-rightist groups mentioned. Whenever I read rightwing propaganda, Abe’s face or name invariably pops up as a spokesman or symbol. He’s a big carp in a small swamp, and in a liberal political environment would have been consigned to a radical backwater of fringe ideologues.
But these are dire times for Japan, what with decades of stagnation, insuperable natural and man-made disasters, and the shame of no longer being Asia’s largest economy. The glory of Japan’s regional peerlessness is gone.
That’s why I have little doubt that the LDP saw this perfect storm of 3/11 disasters (which, given how corrupt the unelected bureaucracy has been after Fukushima, would have led to the trouncing of any party in power) as perfect timing to reinstall someone like Abe. Why else, except for Abe’s thoroughbred political pedigree (grandson of a suspected Class-A war criminal turned postwar PM, and son of another big LDP leader whose name is on international fellowships) and sustained leadership of back-room interest groups, would they choose for a second time this jittery little man with a weak stomach?
Why? Because LDP kingpins knew that people were so desperate for change last year they would have elected a lampshade. After all, given the nature of parliamentary systems, people vote more for (or, in this case, against) a party, less for an individual party leader. Moreover, Abe, at first glance, does not seem as extreme as the “restorationists” (Shintaro Ishihara et al) who wish to take Japan back to prewar glories by banging war drums over territorial sea specks. So, the lesser of two evils.
But look at the record more closely and these “liberal democrats” and restorationists are actually birds of a feather. Now more powerful than ever, they’re getting to work on dismantling postwar Japan. Abe announced on Jan. 31 that he will seek to amend Article 96 of the Constitution, which currently requires a two-thirds Diet majority to approve constitutional changes. That’s entirely possible. Then the rest of Japan’s “Peace Constitution” will follow.
So I end this month’s column with a caution to outside observers:
The current Abe administration is in pole position to drive Japan back to a xenophobic, ultra-rightist, militaristic Japan that we thought the world had seen the last of after two world wars. Abe can (and will, if left to his own devices) undo all the liberal reforms that postwar social engineers thought would forever overwrite the imperialist elements of Japanese society. In fact, it is now clear that Japan’s conservative elite were just biding their time all along, waiting for their rehabilitation. It has come.
One of the basic lessons of chess is that if you allow your opponent to accomplish his plans, you will lose. If Abe is not kept in check, Asia will lose: Japan will cease to be a liberal presence in the region. In fact, given its wealth and power in terms of money and technology, Japan could become a surprisingly destabilizing geopolitical force. Vigilance, everyone.
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