DECEMBER 2, 2020
THE ICONOCLAST: Shinzō Abe and the New Japan is a portrait of the former prime minister that peels back layers of hype to reveal the extensive failings of Japan’s longest-serving premier, as well as some broader national troubles.
Tobias Harris, an astute observer of Japanese politics, tacks back and forth between the spin doctors’ version of Abe and compelling reality checks. Harris concludes that despite enjoying a comfortable majority in both houses of the Diet national legislature for nearly eight years, Abe accomplished relatively little and leaves a legacy of missed opportunities and unfinished business.
The title is misleading, suggesting a hagiography, but the author never provides a compelling argument that Abe was iconoclastic. Indeed, Harris exposes Abe as a reactionary rather than a leader who challenges beliefs and institutions. Abe resigned this year for health reasons but exited under a cloud of political scandals and cronyism that represents old-school politics at its worst.
Soon after stepping down, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine where 14 Class A war criminals were secretly enshrined in 1978. He said he was going to inform the spirits of his resignation, but it was a deliberately provocative gesture. The political energy around the Yasukuni Shrine is so toxic that since 1978 three emperors have boycotted it, while numerous lawsuits have been filed on grounds of constitutional separation of state and religion. Fundamentally, Yasukuni Shrine is a talismanic symbol of an unrepentant view of wartime Japan that divides the Japanese and sparks anger inside South Korea and China.
Abe got into politics to revise the Constitution and rewrite Imperial Japan’s shared past with Asia. He advocates patriotic education and condemns “masochistic history” critical of Japanese depredations. Under his government’s guidance, the comfort-women system of sexual slavery catering to Japanese soldiers from 1932–’45 was marginalized and purged from state-approved textbooks.
Rehabilitating Japan’s era of aggression represents unfinished family business. Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was a war-crimes suspect for his role in mobilizing forced labor in Manchuria during the 1930s. Harris explains that after he was released from prison, Kishi was building a revisionist political movement even before the occupation was ended.
In one of the most remarkable political comebacks ever in Japanese politics, only a decade after he escaped prosecution due to shifting US Cold War priorities, Kishi became prime minister, leading a party that the CIA funded. Abe is thus heir to a revisionist dynasty that has been dutiful to Washington. The vast majority of Abe’s cabinets were members of Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), a right-wing elite lobby that seeks to restore power to the emperor, is unapologetic about Japan’s rampage through Asia 1931–’45, and advocates rolling back gender-equality policies. This group was established in 1997 as a backlash against a more forthright reckoning on Japan’s egregious history in the first half of the 20th century.
Abe’s Holy Grail was constitutional revision aimed at shedding the constraints imposed by the US-written charter, but his agenda never resonated with the public and also proved divisive within the ruling coalition. Abe regards Article 9 — in which Japan renounces the right to wage war and maintain armed forces — as a humiliating reminder of Japan’s subordination to the United States and unrealistic in light of threats to Japan’s security from China and North Korea. But even among those who support constitutional revision, a majority opposed it happening on Abe’s watch, a troubling sign of distrust. When he resigned, Abe acknowledged that failing in this quest constitutes one of his greatest disappointments.
Harris asserts that Abe’s overall achievements were nothing to brag about, especially given the favorable political context of Diet majorities. He succeeded in centralizing state power and transformed the nation’s pacifist stance on security, but civil liberties advocates don’t view the stronger state as an unalloyed triumph because Abe’s “state secrets” law and the 2017 anti-conspiracy law greatly expand powers to curtail transparency and suppress dissent under the handy but dodgy pretext of national security. He tamed the bureaucracy by setting up a command post that vets all top-level promotions. Ambitious officials understand that means backing the prime minister’s agenda and engaging in what is called sontaku — ingratiating themselves by anticipating what is desired and acting accordingly without getting specific instructions.
Sontaku has entered Japan’s political lexicon with the taint of corruption and cronyism. A local member of Nippon Kaigi apparently drew on connections with Abe’s wife in a sweetheart land deal (a 90 percent discount), and in the alleged cover-up, officials tampered with incriminating documents submitted to the Diet in 2017. The media pounced and polls showed hardly anyone believed Abe’s self-exonerating explanation, but the Teflon premier seemed to weather the storm. Earlier this year, however, the widow of an official involved in that tampering released his suicide note exposing the cover-up. In the aftermath, former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, who was once Abe’s mentor, called on him to resign and take responsibility for his role in the scandal.
This case shows how the centralization of top-level bureaucratic appointments risks politicizing the bureaucracy and blurring accountability. Under Abe, cases of data fabrication and document shredding clearly point to the need for greater transparency, but he has moved to restore a cocoon of impunity.
Harris suggests that Abe got rid of the nation’s shibboleth of “pacifism” by agreeing to new US-Japan Defense Guidelines in 2015 that expand Japan’s commitment to provide military support to the United States, including combat operations. Later that year, over the awkward objections of two handpicked constitutional scholars in Diet testimony, Abe also passed legislation that permits collective self-defense (CSD). Yet, strong public opposition to this Abe Doctrine of shrugging off postwar constraints on Japan’s military forces has not abated. He branded it proactive pacifism, but the public remains anxious that Japan will be dragged into a conflict at Washington’s behest that has little to do with national security.
This lack of public support for CSD was highlighted earlier this year when Tokyo fended off Washington’s request that it join a US-led coalition of allies patrolling the Strait of Hormuz due to a series of recent attacks on shipping there, including a Japanese-owned vessel. Abe didn’t want to risk offending Iran and also knew that the Japanese public remained leery of CSD operations so instead dispatched a single destroyer to a nearby but safer part of the Middle East, ostensibly on an intelligence-gathering mission. It was a limited gesture to placate President Donald Trump that highlights how changes in security doctrine on paper remain constrained by public opinion and even beyond the grasp of a relatively hawkish and popular leader like Abe. This public squeamishness was also on display in 2020 when the Japanese government could not find any town willing to host Aegis Ashore, a missile defense system, because locals worried it was more of a target than a shield.
Abe’s role as Uncle Sam’s Man-in-Japan is also evident in how he handled the longstanding irritant of the Okinawa bases. He resolutely backed a plan to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from its dangerous location in crowded Ginowan City to the relatively remote village of Henoko as outlined in a 2006 roadmap for reducing the American military footprint. Delivering on the Pentagon’s wish to proceed with the new base aims to ensure that the United States remains engaged in Asia. Okinawans have repeatedly voted and protested against this long-delayed project sited in the pristine waters of Oura Bay off Henoko due to environmental concerns and resentment about the heavy burden foisted on the prefecture. More than half of all US military personnel in Japan and 75 percent of military facilities are located there. Tokyo belatedly acknowledged that the Henoko seabed has the texture of mayonnaise, thus ensuring further delays while costs escalate for a project of dubious value. The public worries these bases are environmentally irresponsible, and that they serve as bull’s-eyes for belligerent neighbors and hotspots for crime.
The three arrows of “Abenomics” — monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms — were unconventional, but Harris judges it all a failure even before the pandemic slashed Japan’s GDP to less than what it was in 2013. Massive monetary easing did devalue the yen and boost exports while stimulus packages padded growth figures, but Abenomics never achieved the explicit goal of curing deflation. The government juiced the stock market with massive Bank of Japan purchases of ETFs (exchange traded funds), but the doubling of the stock market average was mostly a boon for corporations and hedge-fund investors with negligible impact on households because few own portfolios.
Harris is also right to point out that under Abe, gender disparities have increased while his “womenomics” policy was a sham. More women entered the labor force but did so as nonregular workers in dead-end jobs, explaining why Japan lags all other G7 nations on gender equality and slipped down the World Economic Forum Gender Gap rankings to 121. Abe’s bold targets for women’s empowerment were abandoned, yet another case where he overpromised and underdelivered.
Abe’s apologists concede that he has little to crow about domestically, but they extol his foreign policy. He was a champion of free trade as the world turned protectionist, but Harris concludes that his legacy as a global statesman was “surprisingly tenuous.” Indeed, he made no progress on Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia, South Korea, or China. Moreover, in Harris’s view, Abe’s “failure of strategic imagination” exacerbated the impasse over history between Tokyo and Seoul, asserting that the “dramatic deterioration” of bilateral ties is a nettlesome legacy.
Abe’s much-trumpeted values diplomacy also came up empty. Conservatives condemned Abe’s “weak-kneed” response to China’s curtailing of Hong Kong’s autonomy and crackdown on pro-democracy activists. In the cases of Tibet and the jailing of over one million Uighurs, Abe hasn’t championed the values he preaches. In response to democratic backsliding across Asia, Abe has remained silent and cozied up to human rights–suppressing strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte, Hun Sen, and Narendra Modi. One wonders what values Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar promotes as a leading apologist for the military’s expulsions of ethnic Rohingya.
Especially withering is Harris’s charge that Abe has been negligent on mitigating climate change. He is not the only myopic world leader, but his empty grandstanding and woefully inadequate gestures are, to Harris, particularly galling. Abe’s government has been the leading financier of overseas coal-fired power plants and announced plans to build some two dozen at home. Harris laments, “What difference would constitutional revision make to future generations of Japanese in a world that has blown past two degrees of warming?”
This fine and incisive biography suggests that Abe wielded power without purpose and with disappointing results. He was a giant of Japanese politics who left a tiny footprint. Harris provides a superb and nuanced primer on post–World War II Japanese politics that helpfully contextualizes the rise of yet another dynastic leader wedded to many of the old ways and means of a sclerotic system, an artfully packaged operator who embraced a longstanding conservative agenda.