Nobusuke Kishi was minister of munitions in the Japanese cabinet from 1941 to 1945. After the surrender, he was thrown into prison as a Class-A war criminal – but he was never indicted or tried, and was later released.
With US support, he served as prime minister from January 1957 to July 1960 and was a member of Parliament until he retired in 1979 aged 83.
The prime minister today is his grandson Shinzo Abe – and the loyal grandson wants to correct the history books and change the constitution.
Since he took power in Dec. 2012 as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Abe has transformed and radicalized politics. He wants to rewrite the constitution of May 1947 and allow Japanese soldiers to serve overseas with allies.
His visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December and the government decision to nationalize the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands enraged Japan’s two most important neighbours, China and South Korea. It has also dismayed the business community, which has invested billions of dollars in China, a country that accounts for 20 per cent of Japan’s trade.
He is a divisive figure. He is popular with the conservative wing of the LDP, the military and the far right, which is vocal, well-funded and well-organised.
“I fear that we are running the same risk as in the 1930s,” history professor Toru Nakayama said. “Are the Senkaku islands our equivalent of the attack on Manchuria in 1931? Abe has a sense of inferiority on behalf of his grandfather and wants to rewrite history.
“Our soldiers behaved so badly in China because they were educated in hate and nationalism. Abe wants to do the same now. Hate books about Koreans sell like hot cakes. They have a disastrous effect on the young and uneducated.
Tokyo taxi driver Masao Tanaka said most Japanese do not support Abe.
“He is supported by the rich, the right wing and the arms industry which wants curbs on exports to be lifted. Japan has prospered for 60 years without foreign wars,” Tanaka said.
“If we amend the constitution, we will send our soldiers to die in wars started by the Americans, like the British in Iraq and Afghanistan, and become a target for Islamic terrorism. There are so many issues at home he should attend to.”
In less than two years, Abe has undone five decades of patient reconciliation with China and South Korea.
A survey of Koreans published on Saturday in the Yomiuri Shimbun found that 86 per cent regarded Japan as “evil”, the highest figure since the survey was first published in 1995. And 41 per cent said that Japan was a military threat, second only to North Korea with 81 per cent.
So, while Abe was welcome at the G7 summit in Brussels and met Pope Francis in Rome last week, he is persona non grata in Beijing and Seoul.
In Abe’s view of history, it was Japan that led the peoples of Asia in a war to free them from colonialism: China and Korea were weak and corrupt countries that needed the strong rule of Japan. The war crime was US aggression against Japan, including carpet bombing of its cities and use of two atomic bombs. His grandfather was no more a war criminal than the ministers of munitions of Britain, the US and the Soviet Union.
One evil of Japanese rule in China was its monopoly of opium which it used to raise revenue and “weaken the enemy”. Right-wingers consider this no different to the mass export of opium to China by the British from the 1840s.
Abe is provoking hostility with China and South Korea to win public support to change the constitution and for budgetary increases for the military against the “China threat”. He is aided by the Chinese government which has long used Japan as the historic enemy and dismissed its more than two dozen apologies for the war and billions of dollars in overseas development aid as insincere and self-serving.
It suits both governments to play up the foreign threat and divert public anger away from pressing issues at home. “Abe is pulling Japan on the road to war” was the headline in the Global Times of Beijing in reporting his speech to change the constitution on May 15.
It is hard to see how Abe’s nationalism serves the interests of Japan. It has hurt the sales of its products in South Korea and China, its biggest export market, and poisoned the atmosphere for tens of thousands of his countrymen and women who live there. Some long-term residents have decided to leave and come home.
It has angered the US, which does not want a war with China into which it may be drawn. Nor does Washington appreciate the revisionist version of history that presents it as the criminal. Japan’s post-war economic miracle would have been impossible without American aid, capital, technology and access to its market, as well as the security protection it has provided since 1945.
How can Abe regard the life of his grandfather as a model to follow?
The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.
– Contact us at [email protected]