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Abe's Vision for a Resurgent Japan May Have Led to Demise

Anupama Vijayakumar

1 November 2022

The assassination of Shinzo Abe has been presented as a fallout of the Liberal Democratic Party’s ties with the Unification Church. But how much did Abe’s divisive views on Japan’s military resurgence contribute to this maelstrom? An in-depth look at the growing fissures in Japan’s society.

Abe's Vision for a Resurgent Japan May Have Led to Demise

The high-profile political assassination of Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was certainly one of the most shocking developments of the year. The violent episode which occurred on 8 July 2022 was quite startling considering it took place in a country that has conscientiously projected a Pacifist-foreign policy outlook in the post-1945 era. Abe’s legacy has been widely reflected upon around the world in obituaries and memorials penned by Heads of State, business leaders and common citizens. The dominant narrative herein has presented Abe as the ‘Unifier of Oceans’ for solidifying the modern-day Indo-Pacific construct. Abe has also amusingly been christened the ‘Quadfather’, in light of his contributions to bringing together the grouping of major powers in the Indo-Pacific to address common challenges. However, what has been left out in many of these remembrances, perhaps deliberately, is Abe’s well-articulated yet controversial vision for Japan’s military resurgence and his efforts to revise its Pacifist constitution. It needs to be kept in mind that while Abenomics may have made the world (and particularly the liberal, free markets of the West) happy, his views on matters politico-military had often been a subject of controversy and concern for both domestic and international observers.

Abe’s murderer Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year-old JSDF veteran, purportedly targeted Abe for his supposed ties to the Unification Church, a Christian religious group, which is informally referred to as the ‘Moonies’. According to several reports, Yamagami had a deep-seated anger against the organization and blamed it for his family’s impoverishment. The group has since confirmed that the shooter’s mother is a member and has admitted to receiving donations of up to 100 million yens from her, while leaving the family in dire straits. Prominent politicians belonging to the Abe family including Shinzo Abe’s maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi as well as father Shintaro Abe have been said to have political ties with the Moonies. While none of them held a membership in the Unification Church, Abe had lauded the group for their efforts ‘in relation to the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula’, as recently as September 2021, at a rally where former US President Donald Trump was also present.

However, this explanation that has been presented before the world seems rather simplistic, perhaps even deliberately so. What seems to be getting drowned in this narrative is the increasing influence of religion and past history on Japan’s changing worldview in the 21st Century. Indeed, in the light of such a tragic incident, it is high time the world takes note of the fundamental point of polarisation in Japanese society, which revolves around its identity being defined by Pacifism or Militarism. This polarisation had been on the rise during Abe’s stints as PM. In light of many of his views and decisions regarding the revision of Japan’s Pacifist constitution, such divisions had been widening and may have directly contributed to his eventual assassination.

In the post-1945 period, Japan’s politicians have concertedly been targeted by rogue radical citizens who differed on this fundamental point of divergence. Abe’s own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was stabbed by a right-wing-leaning individual in 1960, at a time when he was facing public criticism for mismanaging the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty. In another instance, the Shield Society, a right-wing paramilitary organisation founded by famous writer Mishima Yukio, attempted a failed coup d’etat in 1970 to overthrow the Pacifist government and restore powers to the Emperor. In more recent memory, an assassin unsuccessfully shot at Nagasaki Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi in 1990, while the house of a Liberal Democratic Party politician Kato Koichi was subjected to arson in 2006 by a disgruntled gentleman who took offense to his critical comments on PM Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine. While gun violence may be low in Japan, what all these incidents indicate is a fractured society grappling with contrasting visions of the state’s resurgence. Such instances strongly point to the existence of two contradicting strands of thought, the tussle between whom shall redefine Japan’s orientation towards international affairs in the coming years.

The ripple effects of this ideological fissure in Japanese society were tested, pulled and twisted during Abe’s reign as PM. Abe’s administration sought to stretch the limits of Japan’s Pacifism through making constitutional revision a top priority. His vision sought to place Japan as a formidable presence in global affairs through extending the country’s limits for acceptable behaviour. In the 2012-2020 period, the administration crafted numerous policy changes that seemingly departed from traditionalist notions of pacifism in more ways than one. While steps were taken to expand the Self Defense Forces’ autonomous capabilities and global reach, Japan also abandoned its traditional ban on arms exports. These measures were rationalised using a growing threat perception coming from an aggressive China and North Korea.

The perceived influence of the Nippon Kaigi’s ideology may be regarded as a catalyst that may have indirectly brought about the demise of Abe. The Nippon Kaigi traces its early origins to the Seicho No Le, a Liberal Shinto Organisation which was founded in the 1930s. A faction of this group joined hands with a Shinto State-revivalist organisation called Nippon o Mamoru Kai in 1974. The foundations of Nippon Kaigi in its present form are said to have been laid when certain right-leaning individuals joined Nippon o Mamoru Kai in 1997. Although the Nippon Kaigi is referred to as a political lobbying group, popular media has often painted it as a cult whose objective is to return Japan to its Imperial glory days. The group has been described to be comprised of individuals who never came to terms with Japan’s defeat in World War II. Popular perceptions of the group’s right-leaning ideology have been associated with notions of the Japanese peoples’ racial superiority and aversion to homosexuality and gender equality, while seeking to eventually help Japan attain Great Power status.

The group has also been criticised for propounding a narrative that trivialises Imperial Japan’s aggressive behaviour. In addition to Abe, members of the Nippon Kaigi include several elite LDP members including current PM Fumio Kishida, former PMs Yoshihide Suga and Taro Aso, and former defence minister Nobuo Kishi. 22 out of 24 members in Abe’s Cabinet formed in 2018 belonged to this group. Reflections of Nippon Kaigi’s ideology can be located within Abe’s vision for Japan. However, policies such as ‘Womenomics’ which sought to increase women’s participation in the workforce, should have contradicted ideas that the leader might take Japan back to its Imperial days. Although Abe’s hawkish policies may have gained favour among certain sections of the electorate, disgruntled sections may have perhaps been growing increasingly averse to Japan taking up important military roles.

Even months after the assassination, Abe's legacy was seen leaving Japanese society as a divided house. Splayed over Western media reportage were images of protesters questioning why 1.66 billion yens (an amount that purportedly exceeded the funds spent on Queen Elizabeth’s funeral) was spent on a state funeral for Abe. This was in start contrast to the views expressed by Japanese youth, aged between 18-29, who wished to celebrate the leader’s legacy.

The images of Abe being shot down is eerily reminiscent to that of a wounded President Kennedy, another visionary leader whose assassination still looms large in the collective memory of the world. Much like JFK, Abe’s legacy is likely to have a definitive impact on Japan’s identity and the sort of status it may seek to achieve in the coming years. The legacy of Abe shines doubly bright as the shadow of an increasingly-aggressive China is today being felt all over the world. It can be said in no uncertain terms that Abe played a key role in opening the eyes of the world to the China threat, setting in place the necessary arrangements that could one day be operationalised if indeed Beijing choses a hegemonic path. The moment of Abe’s violent passing is a harbinger of times to come for Japan. Similar to how the Abe years set Japan on the path to resurgence, the emotional gale from his death may give the necessary impetus to the coming generation of leaders to seek to achieve it. In all probability, a moment of death may have birthed a fundamental transformation in Japan’s identity, one that it may unleash outwardly in a chosen moment of reckoning.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Anupama Vijayakumar


Anupama is the Editor-in-Chief of StraTechos. She is a Co-founder and Director of Trivium Think Tank. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and is a recipient of the Government of India's UGC Senior Research Fellowship. Her doctoral research focuses on the interplay between technology and power in international relations.


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