Answers might include revising the war-renouncing Constitution; rethinking the government’s ban on collective defense; reforming education by weeding out “problematic” teachers through evaluations; and trying to mend ties with Japan’s Asian neighbors.
Individually, these are all correct, but they can be summarized in one very short answer on what he hopes to accomplish — the goals of his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
All of Abe’s policy ideas were once proposed and advocated by Kishi, the “monster of the Showa Era” who survived turbulent political waters spanning the prewar to postwar periods — first as a powerful bureaucrat in the industry ministry and later as a rightwing conservative politician at the government’s helm from 1957 to 1960.
Experts say the key to understanding Abe is his grandfather, who continued to wield political influence until he died in 1987 at age 90.
“I think (Abe) has been considerably influenced by Kishi,” said Yoshihisa Hara, a political science professor at Tokyo International University and a leading expert on Kishi’s personal history.
Kishi’s lifelong political ambitions were to strengthen the security alliance with the U.S. and revise the Constitution to put Japan’s ties with Washington on an equal footing.
For that purpose, Kishi visited Southeast Asian countries immediately after he became prime minister in 1957 — the first Japanese leader to do so after World War II — to improve ties with the rest of Asia and also to impress on the U.S. the image of Japan as a leader in Asia.
Abe embarked on a tour just days after he became prime minister to mend relations with China and South Korea that were severely strained during the administration of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who paid yearly contentious visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, but most troubling, also 14 Class-A war criminals.
“Prime Minister Koizumi was not very interested in Asia. But Abe is different,” Hara said, noting Abe is influenced by Kishi.
Kishi’s controversial background as a wartime leader and suspected war criminal may be behind Abe’s consistent sympathy with the prewar and wartime Japanese regime, observers say.
Abe himself has acknowledged that Kishi — who was prime minister while he was a child — has been a role model for him as a politician. Denial of Kishi as a wartime leader and Class-A war criminal suspect might lead to denial of Abe’s own identity.
Until last year, Abe openly visited Yasukuni Shrine. He went again in April when he was still chief Cabinet secretary, but has not publicly confirmed that pilgrimage.
“It’s not appropriate for the government to specifically draw a conclusion” on the war responsibility of the war criminals, Abe told the Diet on Oct. 3.
“The consensus of the nation has decided that they should no longer be treated as criminals under domestic law,” Abe wrote in a book published this year, referring to the 1954 revision of welfare laws for families of the war dead to cover relatives of executed war criminals as well.
Born in 1896 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Kishi was a key architect of Japan’s puppet state Manchukuo, created by the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria in 1932.
Kishi, who was a close ally of Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, served as a wartime industry minister in Tojo’s Cabinet and was one of those who signed the government document opening the war against the United States in 1941.
Following the defeat in 1945, Kishi was arrested as a suspected Class-A war criminal by Occupation authorities, only to be released in 1948 without indictment.
Why Kishi was not charged by the Allied powers to face the International Military Tribunal for the Far East remains a mystery, since he was at the center of power in Manchukuo and later was in charge of the wartime industrial policies that forced the Japanese people to devote all of their resources to the war.
But many historians theorize that he avoided charges because of changes in Occupation policies. As the Cold War with the Soviet Union and China set in, the U.S. policy of containment dictated that Japan be a key frontline ally in Asia.
That is what Kishi believed.
“The development of the Cold War was the only hope for us in Sugamo Prison,” Kishi recalled to Tokyo International University’s Hara, referring to the facility in Toshima Ward where suspected war criminals were detained.
“I believed that if (the Cold War) intensified, we would be able to get through without being hanged,” he was quoted in a book by Hara as saying.
National defense and war criminals are not the only issues on which Abe’s policies appear to mirror Kishi’s.
Kishi tried to emphasize traditional Japanese values in moral education at schools. He also introduced a system to rate teachers’ performance in what was seen as a crackdown on the left-leaning Japan Teachers Union.
Abe has similarly proposed introducing a performance-review system to “ask incompetent teachers to quit,” and revised the Fundamental Law of Education to include nurturing his notion of patriotism among children — one of his public education goals.
Manabu Miyazaki, a writer and critic who has published a book analyzing Kishi’s influence on Abe, observed that Abe had little choice but to follow in the footsteps of Kishi because he was born into the political blue-blood family.
Abe has used the family’s fame, funds and election-backing groups to win his Diet seat, Miyazaki pointed out.
“He didn’t choose (Kishi as a role model) by himself,” the writer said, noting that choice was effectively made at birth.
Abe’s father — the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe — married Kishi’s daughter, Yoko. Abe wrote in one of his books how as a child he came to identify himself with conservative political ideas after he watched his beloved grandfather come under attack over the 1960 revision of the Japan-U.S. security treaty.
Concern has been raised in overseas media that Abe, who is often reluctant to discuss Japan’s war responsibility, may give the nation a big push toward the right and push a narrow sense of nationalism on the public.
Hara brushed aside such concerns, saying common sense will prevail in public opinion and check any political move to drive the country toward extreme nationalism.
At the same time, he added, it is only natural that Japanese have started to rethink their postwar identity as the nation has undergone great social and economic changes following the end of the Cold War and the burst of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.
Kishi was long regarded as a hard-core conservative and supporting his policy ideas was considered taboo by many intellectuals. Today, however, people are starting to view his arguments more favorably, Hara said.
“The times have changed greatly. Now Abe benefits greatly from being Kishi’s grandson,” he said.