One pitfall for politicians is their tendency to get carried away with success. History has no shortage of examples of political leaders who, having seen everything turn out right for them, acted carelessly, lost the trust of their supporters and ultimately suffered a collapse of their power base.

The Dec. 26 visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Yasukuni Shrine might turn out to be such a case.

The Yasukuni visit illustrated how Japanese political leaders fail to understand the reality that issues related to the perception of history are political issues.

In visiting Yasukuni, Prime Minister Abe insisted that he had no intention of hurting the public sentiments of the Chinese or South Koreans. But his personal feelings don’t matter in the world of politics.

No matter what his subjective intentions might have been with regard to the Yasukuni visit, the visit can be interpreted by people in other countries as an indication that he is trying to justify Japan’s actions during World War II.

The postwar international order is built on the grand story that democracy defeated fascism in the war. As Japanese, we would like to argue that the United States committed a crime when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but if Japan tries to reject the democracy versus fascism story, it will lose its position in the world. Abe’s Yasukuni visit prompted the U.S. and Russia to join the chorus of criticism against Japan. In the sense that Abe lacks the ability to objectively understand the situation surrounding Japan today, he is no realist.

Japan has territorial disputes with its neighbors China, South Korea and Russia. These are all negative legacies of Japan’s having not fully settled war-related issues. Abe’s Yasukuni visit gave Japan’s neighbors yet another chance to claim moral superiority, either as winners of the war or as victims of Japan’s past colonial rule, making it even harder for Japan to resolve its war-related problems.

Some members of the Japanese media still can’t tell the difference between those politicians, on one hand, who are able to think sensibly about national interests and act realistically, and right-leaning politicians, on the other, who are driven by their own emotions to the point of demonstrating narcissistic behavior.

On Jan. 14, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa — with the support of another former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi — announced his candidacy for the Tokyo gubernatorial election. This is an instance of an outside resistance movement against the Abe administration finding its way into national politics.

I had a chance to talk with the two former prime ministers, along with former Lower House member Shusei Tanaka, in a series of meetings on administrative reforms for two years from 1996. Both men are often seen as odd men out when they’re compared with Japan’s mainstream politicians. That’s not because they are eccentric characters but because, unlike many other Japanese politicians, they show rational ways of thinking.

Right after he took office in 1993, Hosokawa stated that Japan’s war with China and the Pacific War were wars of aggression carried out by Japan. And, at the time, it was Koizumi who came out before anyone else among senior lawmakers of the Liberal Democratic Party to support Hosokawa’s statement.

Both Hosokawa and Koizumi demonstrate the ability to look squarely at historical facts. The duo is trying to make a public “yes” or “no” to nuclear power a key issue in the Tokyo gubernatorial race. The Abe administration is trying to downplay their argument, stressing that energy policy is a national issue and should not be made an agenda in a local election.

Yet, is Tokyo not a metropolis that symbolizes a modern civilization that consumes a huge amount of energy?

Therefore, it will be significant for the candidates in the Tokyo gubernatorial election to discuss, before Tokyo voters, what kind of city and civilization they would like to create for the future.

Hosokawa and Koizumi, in their rational thinking, understand that nuclear power generation entails risks and costs that are too big. The questions raised by these two elderly politicians — who don’t appear to have obligatory ties or vested interests in politics — could exert a big influence on the direction of the Abe administration.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.

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