Japan’s prime minister has returned from what looks at first blush to have been a very successful personal mission to reinforce to the American audience that “Japan is back,” and to remind Americans that Japan stands today, 70 years after the end of World War II, as one of America’s closest allies.

As the daughter of a 20-year-old navy ensign who served aboard the USS Missouri eight months after Japan’s formal signed surrender aboard the battleship, the close relations between the United States and Japan today are nothing short of a marvel.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s congressional speech was designed to humanize a man whose political rhetoric often reflects a militaristic and masculine view of Japan’s past. True to form, he began his speech referencing his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as Japan’s 56th and 57th prime minister. He quoted from Kishi’s 1957 speech to the U.S. House of Representatives: “It is because of our strong belief in democratic principles and ideals that Japan associates herself with the free nations of the world.”

It must have been particularly exhilarating for Abe to share such a positive memory of his grandfather’s post-World War II political career. Abe has been quite open about how revolted he is by those who accuse Kishi of being a Class-A war criminal suspect. The suspicion is legitimate. U.S.-led Allied Occupation forces did arrest Kishi at war’s end for his role as director of munitions under Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, but he was released and never convicted. This led to a political career groomed by those same Occupation forces that needed a conservative anti-communist leader for postwar Japan.

The prime minister has spent a lifetime in dedication to restoring the image and good name of his maternal grandfather. His righteous devotion to the reputation of this one man stands as a psychic block to what is becoming a growing problem for Japan’s full nation brand campaign — an inability to get beyond the politics and policies of Shinzo Abe.

Abe does not seem to have the will or the way to devote the same energy to Japan’s overall reputation in the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a nation of 127 million can and should do.

If I were to publish a book today on this condition, I’d call it, “Brand Japan: A Government in Need of a Nation.” The people of Japan need to be reminded of their value beyond Tokyo’s central government, its dominant party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and its main leader, Abe.

We hear so much from the Abe administration about collective self-defense and the need to revise Japan’s peace Constitution. Japanese citizens need to strengthen their collective self-defense of free speech and free press. A democracy anywhere, but especially here in Japan, thrives only when multiple voices are heard, when dissent is allowed, and when citizens feel free to express their thoughts and views without fear or favor.

A growing chorus of global voices who care deeply about Japan is genuinely concerned with the Japanese government’s hardening of its political arteries. These friends of Japan worry that not only Japan’s image but also its reputation is becoming one that is less open and free in its democratic principles. On the heels of Abe’s trip to America, nearly 200 leading Japan studies scholars from inside and outside Japan released an open letter urging the prime minister to fully acknowledge Japan’s role in the comfort women system of World War II.

The open letter to Abe is a symbolic gesture. While I believe in the power of sincere apology and forgiveness, I do not believe that the prime minister alone can repair the bad feelings in this region. Whatever Abe says, he will be met with a lot of negative pushback. It’s a no-win for him. If an apology on his part were met with a grass-roots effort to bring more people into the 70th anniversary conversation, then it might have some positive impact.

While we wait for August to arrive, the citizens of Japan need to elevate the national conversation beyond Abe and any statements he may or may not make about Japan’s past. Japan seems trapped in a political straightjacket. Its outward gestures to the world are becoming dominated by headlines reporting the comings and goings and rhetoric of politicians who look largely to the past in order to heal personal wounds or pursue vendettas.

Abe labeled his speech to Congress “Toward an Alliance of Hope” in reference to strengthening U.S.-Japan relations, particularly in collective security and trade.

He notably did not quote his father, Shintaro Abe, for whom my Abe Fellowship is named. Shinzo Abe went along on at least 20 diplomatic trips with his father, who was Japan’s longest serving foreign minister. Nearly 25 years after Shintaro Abe’s death, the Abe Fellowships support his legacy through sponsoring policy-relevant research that will strengthen the level of intellectual cooperation between U.S.- and Japan-based academics.

Shinzo Abe has also been silent about his paternal grandfather, Kan Abe. This grandfather ran in 1942 as a liberal independent with no political party backing to challenge Tojo’s policies, and succeeded in winning a seat in the Lower House. If we define hope as a desire for something to happen, Kan Abe went beyond hope to courage in action in this country’s darkest hours. I’d like to see the prime minister widen his reference list when talking about his personal and Japan’s history.

In the spirit and memory of Shintaro Abe’s dedication to dialogue in international relations and Kan Abe’s political backbone when all others were falling in tow with the military line, my hope is for a citizen alliance that moves us beyond narrow politics.

Nancy Snow, Ph.D., is an Abe Fellow and visiting professor at Keio University and author/editor of 10 books, including “Propaganda, Inc.” and “Information War,” both of which were published in Japanese. Her book on Brand Japan will be released later this year. Contact her at www.nancysnow.com .

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