What links Osaka, Seoul, Busan and Glendale, California? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s championing of revisionist history.
Since becoming a member of the Diet in 1993, Abe has been pushing for a more positive spin on Japan’s 1931-45 wartime record. To that end, he ushered through a law promoting patriotic education in 2007. More recently, his education ministry has issued guidelines for textbook publishers and educators that mandate instruction about various controversies, such as the “comfort women” system of sexual servitude, that conforms to the government’s stance.
In mid-February, in the early days of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal brewing in Osaka, Abe declared that he shared the ideological views of the school’s founder. This stalwart defense of Yasunori Kagoike has since crumbled as Abe has scrambled to distance himself from what has become the biggest crisis of his premiership.
But Abe’s defiant declaration is revealing because he was responding to questions about whether the educational philosophy at the school was appropriate. Parents say students were taught to use hate speech in referring to ethnic Chinese and Koreans. Students were also tasked with memorizing the 1890 Imperial Rescript of Education, which enjoined all Japanese subjects to pledge blind devotion to the Emperor in the pre-1945 era. U.S. Occupation (1945-52) authorities banned teaching students this rescript because it was considered to be a key element in the militaristic brainwashing that helped sustain Japanese imperialism between 1895 and 1945.
Abe didn’t repudiate the jingoism, racism and Emperor worship — all redolent of wartime Japan — inculcated among the children studying at Moritomo Gakuen. In fact, the planned elementary school at the heart of the current land scandal was to be named after Abe, until he requested that his name not be used for that purpose or for fundraising.
But his wife, Akie Abe, became the honorary principal of the school and praised its educational philosophy, saying that Japan needs more of the moral education on offer. In 2014, in a videotaped exchange, she asked the students if they knew whom her husband was and, prodded by Kagoike, they chimed up that he was the man protecting Japan from China.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada also had a posting on the school website thanking the founder for sending his students to cheer on and wave flags for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Students were also encouraged to congratulate Abe on the passage of his controversial security legislation in 2015.
These are kindergarten children. Shamelessly brainwashing them in support of Abe’s security agenda is reprehensible and a worrying sign that Japan’s reactionaries are so desperate they will stoop to any measure to manipulate public opinion and fabricate support.
But it gets worse. The planned elementary school is being built on contaminated land, endangering the health of the young patriots. This lack of concern about the welfare of the children should disqualify the school from operating. The government gave the school funds to clean up the site, but one of the workers involved revealed he dug up some of the contaminated soil and was then told to rebury it, covering it with just a thin layer of clean topsoil.
Hmm. So, it would appear that the school went through the motions of a cleanup and pocketed the money the government gave them for this task, a sum that happens to be about the same amount as the school ended up paying the government to acquire the land. Thus the school seems to have funded this purchase with money from state coffers while getting an exorbitant discount into the bargain. (A similar plot of land nearby sold for almost 10 times what the school paid.)
In the Diet, this dubious land deal has raised many questions about Abe and his wife’s involvement and political interference in selling the land for a song. Conveniently, the government has destroyed documents related to the sweetheart deal. Abe opposes an independent probe of Liberal Democratic Party Diet members’ possible involvement, despite the LDP’s Yoshitada Konoike alleging that the school’s founder tried to bribe him. Soon thereafter the land deal went through at a lavish markdown, raising suspicions that some other politician was more biddable. The LDP’s opposition to summoning Kagoike to testify in the Diet makes it look like it has something to hide and is worried that he might spill the beans about unsavory dealings that could prove awkward.
Abe is the Teflon prime minister, having emerged from past scandals unscathed, but this time Abe’s support rate appears to have imploded, with one Nikkei poll recording a drop in backing for his Cabinet from 63 percent to 36 percent as anger mounts. Given that Abe has promised to resign if any evidence emerges that links him or his wife to the land deal, he must be certain there is no smoking gun. Yet you have to wonder about the coincidence of his reported visit to Osaka on the day of a meeting between Moritomo representatives and finance ministry officials, just as the Diet was in the middle of contentious deliberations about his security legislation, when his presence was crucial. One assumes he is too savvy to leave any trace, but plausible deniability or not, Abe has become the Diet’s pinata, just as he was in 2007 on the way to the ignominious end of his first turn as PM.
In China and South Korea, the fact that a school linked with Abe is teaching revisionist history and racial slurs targeting their people reinforces negative perceptions about him. In terms of public diplomacy, Team Abe has scored yet another own goal. Armed with a massively increased budget, Japan’s public diplomacy should be wowing the world, but the nation keeps getting mired in fights over its shared history with its neighbors.
The withdrawal of Japan’s ambassador to South Korea over the presence of a comfort woman statue in Busan, and a failure to remove a similar statue in Seoul, is silly. This diplomatic pout over statues is overwrought and counterproductive. Critics of Japan over the comfort women are setting the agenda, running circles around diplomats who seem willing to throw fuel on the fires of acrimony.
By overreacting, the government is ceding the initiative and ensuring that the media keeps shining a light on Japan’s damning past. And now it has taken the statue wars to Glendale, California, where it has filed an official opinion in support of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a lawsuit protesting the installation of a comfort woman statue in that city. This seems to be a violation of the 2015 deal with Seoul in which the two governments agreed not to give each other a hard time internationally over the comfort women issue.
Both at home and overseas, Japan’s revisionists are betraying the nation they ostensibly revere.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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