How Shinzo Abe Sought to Rewrite Japanese History

How Shinzo Abe Sought to Rewrite Japanese History

How Shinzo Abe Sought to Rewrite Japanese History

“He’s seen as the person who tried so hard to make Japan’s alliance promises to the United States stronger,” Alexis Dudden says. “But these are solely in security terms, and have led to greater insecurity in the region.”

Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated on Friday, in the city of Nara. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe had served in Japan’s highest elected office twice: the first time, for a year, starting in 2006, and the second time between 2012 and 2020. Abe came from a prominent political family—his father had been a foreign minister, and his grandfather had served as Prime Minister in the late nineteen-fifties after avoiding war-crimes charges—and remained one of the most powerful politicians in the country even after leaving office, in 2020. As Prime Minister, Abe sought to reëstablish Japan as a forceful presence in international affairs, and his policy to jumpstart the Japanese economy came to be known as Abenomics. He failed, however, in his push to revise Japan’s constitution to allow the country to take non-defensive military action abroad. Abe cultivated strong relationships with a number of world leaders, including Donald Trump and the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but relationships in the Asia-Pacific region, especially with South Korea, were strained by Abe’s unwillingness to fully acknowledge Japan’s heinous behavior during the Second World War.

After Abe’s death, I spoke by phone with Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut who specializes in modern Japan and Korea. She was in Tokyo when we talked. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Abe’s Second World War revisionism, his complicated feelings about America, and why his push to reform the Japanese constitution ultimately failed.


How do you see Abe’s legacy?

He was a Prime Minister who reconfigured Japan’s place in East Asia, or at least tried to. He tried to create a more assertive Japan through a very proactive—as he liked to describe it—attempt at diplomacy. And he travelled widely. He met with Vladimir Putin more than with any other world leader: more than twenty times. He did meet Xi Jinping, and he was the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump after [Trump] became President. Abe, however, created a deep rift between Japan and its Asian neighbors over his extremely hawkish outlook, his extremist positions on the legacy of the Japanese empire, and its responsibilities for atrocities committed throughout Asia and the Pacific. While many are extolling him as a great leader, his personal vision for rewriting Japanese history, of a glorious past, created a real problem in East Asia which will linger, because it divided not just the different countries’ approach to diplomacy with Japan; it also divided Japanese society even further over how to approach its own responsibility for wartime actions carried out in the name of the emperor.

You used the phrase “rewriting history.” Do you mean rewriting the truth, or do you mean rewriting the way people in Japan understood their history? To what degree was Abe, when he came into office for the first time, in 2006, a departure from the way that Japan understood its own history? And to what degree was this more of the status quo, but just in a more aggressive fashion?

The helpful thing about studying Abe is that he himself published several articles and books, and he gave numerous speeches about history and about his vision of Japan’s history, in particular. When he first became a parliamentarian, in the early nineteen-nineties, inheriting his father’s seat, he was part of a study group inside Parliament that is believed to have written a document denying the Nanjing Massacre. This article used to be available in Japan’s Diet archives. It is no longer traceable, but it was there. Abe began in the mid-nineties, when there was an effort to really socially readdress Japan’s wartime role in Asia, after the death of Emperor Hirohito, in the wake of the first “comfort women” coming forward. That’s when Japanese political leaders really became more public about the positioning of their own parties’ views of Japan’s role in Asia, in a new, more strident way that sought to rewrite how Japan and the Japanese should see it.


Fast forward to his first term as Prime Minister, in 2006. By that time, these issues had been much better studied academically and socially within Japan and throughout the world. Abe made a big effort, in 2006 and 2007, to deny that Japan bore any state responsibility for the comfort women, in particular. And he failed at that attempt. This is when he and his supporters took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post. And it was a real moment of shock for him when the U.S. Congress passed a nonbinding House resolution asking Japan to atone for its role in creating the comfort-women system. That was also when he resigned for the first time because of his ulcerative colitis.

But, between 1994 and 2006, his chief lobbying group, called the Nippon Kaigi, was created—this political-lobbying group didn’t have much of a public face, but it emerged as an extremely powerful ideologically based group. And this is why comparing him to Trump and [India’s Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and other extremists—or people with extreme views or people who give voice to extreme views—is apt, because these groups seem to come out of nowhere for a lot of us. Like, who was Steve Bannon until there was Steve Bannon? Abe, in that interim between being a junior parliamentarian and becoming Prime Minister, had become this group’s head of history and territory. And, in that moment, he also published a work about making Japan great again, which he called “Towards a Beautiful Country.”

I just wanted to follow up on the Nanjing Massacre. Americans may know this as the Rape of Nanking, when, in 1937, Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese people and raped tens of thousands. And there have been some efforts in Japan to deny all this. What exactly was Abe arguing about this?

He argued several aspects of this in different places—specifically that much of it was a fabrication, that much of it was an effort by China to smear Japan, that, in fact, nowhere near the numbers of people as claimed had been massacred, and that in many cases it was the Chinese soldiers targeting the Japanese. And so this is really that kind of Holocaust denialism.


After Abe came to power in 2012, there were some efforts to apologize more for Japan’s wartime behavior, with some American pressure, presumably because the United States wanted to unite Asian countries around opposing China, and Japan’s wartime record was a stumbling block. Were these moves by Abe sincere or substantive?

It would not be possible for me to judge the sincerity of someone’s apology. However, what is possible to judge is what Abe’s study group continued to do with him continuing to be in charge. In particular, as soon as he came into power for the second time, in 2012, the group opened a cabinet-level investigation into what’s called the Kono Statement, which the Japanese government, led by Abe’s own party, had issued to apologize for the comfort-women issue, in 1993. Abe ordered an investigation into how that statement came about. And that really touched off a more public debate among Japanese academics, Korean academics, Chinese academics, and all of their supporters, but, most importantly, the victims, saying, “Wait a minute, is Japan going to rescind the apologies it’s already made?”

Abe would say things like, “Well, I maintain the positions of the government of Japan,” on wartime anniversaries, et cetera. And yet, at the same time, his own government was not just whittling away but hollowing out what was already on the books—in particular the Kono Statement. So it’s under Abe’s second term, in the twenty-tens, that, for example, we see a government-backed effort to pressure publishers into removing passages about atrocities committed by the Japanese Army and Japanese soldiers during World War Two, particularly on the continent in Asia, and also how Japanese efforts should be remembered at the archival level, how Japan’s efforts against the Allies should be taught, and how battles that were lost should be thought about, for example.


When he was invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, in April, 2015, he gave a speech that everyone stood up and applauded at. And yet the battles that he recalled were largely battles that Japan had won against America or were considered a draw. And the Americans recognized that this was what he was talking about. Then, in August of that year, Abe talked about how Japan’s efforts in 1904 and 1905, when Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, gave hope to oppressed people throughout the world. Well, this was the war that led to the colonization of Korea, so the speech was a direct slap to Korea. And so, at each stage, when it appeared as if Abe was sort of recognizing that Japan had committed these acts, he actually was using words that made clear he was distancing the country from taking any responsibility or from any sense that he would accept responsibility for the atrocities committed and things that continue to fuel the so-called history problems in the region.

When it came to the comfort-women issue, it really became clear that he was moving away from all of the hard work that had been done prior to his coming back into office. Successive administrations had upheld this acceptance, the 1993 Kono Statement, but Abe announced, after Japan and South Korea agreed in late 2015 to settle the issue of comfort women, that he felt sorry for these poor people but that there was no evidence that the government of Japan had been responsible or that the state of Japan had constructed this system. And so, while it was reported that he was making these gestures of atonement, it became clear that Abe was going in the other direction, dragging Japan back toward the seventies and the eighties, when successive administrations just refused to acknowledge that this history had even happened.

When you read about Japan wanting to amend its constitution, or you read about Abe or other Japanese leaders wanting to play more of an active diplomatic role in global affairs, I think a lot of people would say, “Well, World War Two ended more than seventy-five years ago. And Japan has largely been at peace with its neighbors since then. So has Germany. Why shouldn’t these countries be allowed to be essentially ‘normal’ countries? Certain countries are not inherently more violent than others.” How do you respond to this argument?

Abe was very clear that much of his effort was to exonerate the name of his grandfather, who had been labelled a class-A war criminal. [Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was imprisoned for three years but was never tried. He later became the Prime Minister, in 1957.] And Abe wrote in his book about, as a child, being teased because other kids his age were taunting him for his grandfather. So he really saw it as his mission, his destiny, to exonerate the family name and, therefore, to overturn this notion of criminality—that, at the war-crimes tribunal, Japan should not have been found guilty as charged.

This issue is also part of what had been a source of division within his party, the Liberal Democratic Party: whether Japan should have accepted what at the beginning were called the American terms, the American constitution. Sure, at the beginning, in 1947, when the U.S. occupation sort of handed this constitution to Japan, and when it went into effect, in May, 1947, it was viewed as an American document. But, over time, it came to be how the Japanese were taught about their place in the world. I don’t use the word “pacifist” to describe the constitution, but it is a constitution that prohibits waging war abroad. And, by the mid-nineties into the early two-thousands, it became far more commonplace to hear words such as “masochistic,” “self-defeating,” and “emasculating” about the constitution.

Abe saw it as part of his mission to rewrite Japan’s place in Asia, in the world. As you say, why shouldn’t every country have the right to this? What’s important to bear in mind is the constitution never prohibited the right to self-defense. Japan has an astonishingly strong military, and has had one since it was able to transform, with U.S. backing, in the early fifties, its police force into what was known as a self-defense force. While Japan has, since after the Second World War, not had the right to wage war abroad, fire bullets abroad, except in self-defense, it does refuelling missions, humanitarian missions, alongside the United States, in particular, but also with the United Nations peacekeeping force. Abe, however, had a different vision for this. He saw a normal Japan with a full-fledged military with the right to do whatever it wants.

What’s also important to bear in mind is that a lot of Article 9 [of the Japanese constitution], prohibiting the ability to wage war, has already been eviscerated. Many refer to this as the salami slicing of the constitutional law. In 2015, Abe also announced that it was time to enact something called collective self-defense. And this became a huge issue throughout the summer of 2015, when for the first time, really since the nineteen-sixties, people were taking to the streets, marching against Japan adopting this new legislation, because this would have been the first step to overturning the ban on waging war abroad. Fast forward to now, even Thursday’s morning papers here, before he was assassinated, had a huge discussion over increasing Japan’s defense budget. And it’s something that the current Prime Minister would like to accomplish. Abe had been a strong advocate of increasing Japan’s defense spending, purchasing what are used as attack weapons.

It is ironic, considering Abe’s thinking about the American imprint on the Japanese constitution, that it was the Americans who had saved his grandfather from a much worse fate after the war—something they had done with many suspected war criminals in Germany and Japan they wanted to rely on, often for anti-Communist reasons.


Much of Abe’s writing is actually, in the end, rather anti-American because he also very much wanted to revisit the judgment at the war-crimes tribunal. I don’t mean to get too into the weeds, but the rise of postwar Japan is predicated on this. When Japan resumed sovereignty, in 1952, after the San Francisco Treaty, the acceptance of the peace treaty was predicated on the Japanese government’s acceptance of the war-crimes judgment. It’s not like we should erase Japan’s great success and the wonderful things that Japan has accomplished in the postwar era. But what Abe was trying to do was rewrite these little parts of history, which are actually huge parts, in a way that exculpates Japan and the Japanese people from any notion they had committed any crimes or done bad things during World War Two.

It does seem that, despite this more nationalist posture, he had some success in relations with neighboring countries, with the exception of South Korea, maybe because it coincided with a more assertive China. Do you agree?

He worked very closely with a certain group of Washington-alliance managers, as they’re known, who continue to want Japan to have a much more forceful military role in Asia and in the world. And, in particular, he’s credited with this notion of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Whether he himself coined the term is still up for debate, but he said that he really wanted Japan to be able to engage more militarily with Australia, India, and the United States in this sort of containment that’s come into play—containing China, in particular, by bolstering Japan’s naval capacities and so-called defense capabilities.

So, his efforts to engage had far more to do with beefing up Japan’s military capabilities. We see this in particular in Okinawa, where there’s a base that’s been under debate for years, and he was absolutely clear that, despite local opposition to the construction of this base, it was going to happen because this was necessary to his vision of hardening Japan’s security position and posture. The way I think about Abe’s legacy is in pretty tough terms, because the policies that he shaped and that are on the books for Japan have created this very rigid wall, almost, in the water around Japan which allow the language of security to dominate thinking. And, at the same time, a majority of Japanese, while they definitely see China as an increasingly aggressive threat and see North Korean missiles flying overhead, do not want to have Japan just do America’s bidding.

I want to come back to the thing that I said earlier about the irony of the right wing in Japan, and you can see this in other countries, too, where there are historical and other reasons for a certain kind of anti-Americanism, but their policies are very closely allied with America’s.

It is the irony overlaying his career because, at its fundamental core, making Japan “beautiful” is quite anti-American. And yet, on the surface, he’s seen as the person who tried so hard to make Japan’s alliance promises to the United States stronger. But these are solely in security terms, and have led to greater insecurity in the region. The standoff with Korea, the increasingly frozen ties with China are a result of Abe’s determination to make Japan great again. And it therefore really comes down to: What is the meaning of “great” for Abe, and for the legacy of Abe? Because, again, most Japanese have come to have a different understanding. The other irony is that all of Abe’s nationalism will be overlooked by America because politicians like Abe allow America to outsource its containment of China.

Austin Peter
Austin Peter

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