Shinzo Abe and the long history of Japanese political violence

9 July 2022

11:45 PM

9 July 2022

11:45 PM

Shinzo Abe, perhaps the most significant Japanese politician of the last 50 years, has been assassinated. The killing was carried out by Tetsuya Yamagamu, a youngish and apparently disgruntled former employee of the Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force.

It was a brutal and sordid end to what was an important if not uncontroversial life. Shinzo Abe was the dominant politician of his era. Forced to give up the prime ministership after just one year in 2007 because of ulcerative colitis, a congenital condition, Abe came back to win landslide elections for the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, 2014 and 2017. In an era when many Japanese prime ministers have served for little more than a year, Abe was prime minister for a record eight years and 267 days. Abe would almost certainly have served for longer had it not been for a return of his illness in 2020.

No wonder then at the genuine worldwide shock. ‘Japan has lost a great prime minister’, said President Macron. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, whose country has been strongly supported by Japan in its ongoing tussle with China for sovereignty, recorded that ‘Taiwan has also lost an important and close friend.’

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that 9 July would be a national day of mourning. Modi’s reaction is no surprise. During a brief first term as prime minister in 2007, Abe brought India into a four-way security alliance including the US and Australia. Former US President Barack Obama, a willing partner, was equally effusive, saying that Abe ‘was devoted to both the country he served and the extraordinary alliance between the United States and Japan.’

The Quad, as it is known, has become the cornerstone of a mutual security agreement aimed at keeping China’s Asian maritime ambitions in check. Often criticised domestically for his vigorous foreign policy, Abe, after his second term in office starting in 2012, nevertheless pushed through annual increases in defence expenditure. To the annoyance of China, Abe, through his personal charisma, revised and expanded the role that the Japanese Self Defence Forces could take in global conflicts. As Donald Trump has rightly commented, ‘Few people know what a great man and leader Shinzo Abe was, but history will teach them.’

GettyImages-947720580.jpgDonald Trump said that ‘Few people know what a great man and leader Shinzo Abe was’

However, the eulogisation of Shinzo Abe has one major faultline. Geopolitical necessity required the western powers to gloss over the fact that Abe was an ultranationalist holocaust denier – the Chinese holocaust that is.

Abe was a longstanding member of Nippon Kaigi, a 38,000-member organisation including 40 current and former ministers, which is dedicated to the restoration of Japan’s wartime imperial constitution.

Coincidentally, Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was the mastermind behind the economic enslavement of millions of Chinese for the industrial militarisation of Manchuria. Later, Kishi signed the declaration of war against the United States in 1941. After the war Kishi, an A-list war criminal, escaped prosecution and became a founder of the LDP, serving as prime minister from 1957 to 1960.

Not surprisingly, in 2013 Abe caused a storm of protest throughout Asia when he visited Yasakuni Shrine where Japan’s convicted war criminals are buried. Even at the end of his time in office Abe was unreconstructed in his attitudes to Japan’s wartime atrocities. In August 2020 Abe acolyte, Shuichi Takatori reported that he had delivered a message from Abe at the Yasukune Shrine, paying ‘his respects from the heart to the war dead and prayed for the rest and permanent peace of their souls.’ For Abe and the LDP hierarchy the Japanese soldiers found guilty at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals were heroes, not criminals.

For convenience or perhaps laziness the West tends to ignore the mythologisation narratives spun by the Japanese establishment in the post-war period. It is a pattern of behaviour that has been evident since General Douglas MacArthur who became Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in post-war Japan. By giving Emperor Hirohito a free pass during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, MacArthur embedded a false narrative in post-war Japanese history.

As the French judge at the trial, Henri Bernard, noted, Japan’s wartime atrocities ‘had a principal author [Hirohito] who escaped all prosecution and of whom in any case the present defendants could only be considered accomplices.’ The result was that whereas ultranationalism became toxic in post-war Germany, in Japan neo-fascism — centred around the figure of the emperor — retained its allure and became mainstream albeit sotto voce within Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Japan’s post-war mythologisation also applies to the prevalent idea that the country is a lacuna of peace and stability. For instance, the BBC report on the death of Shinzo Abe noted that ‘This is a country not used to dealing with political violence.’ Nancy Snow, Japan director of the International Security Industrial Council, told CNN that Japan would be forever changed. ‘It’s not only rare,’ she said, ‘but it’s really culturally unfathomable.’ Facile evidence of this ‘unfathomableness’ is given by quotingof the number of guns in Japan, 0.3 per 100 people versus 120.5 per 100 people in the US.

This is bunkum. Assassination, the sneak attack, ambush, are completely embedded in Japan’s political and military tradition; hence the sneak attack on Russia’s Port Arthur in 1904 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Violence has always been one of the means of finding political solutions. The most famous exemplar in Japanese culture is the story of the 47 Ronin (unattached Samurai). After a powerful court official, Kira Yoshinaka, forced their master to commit Seppuku (ritual suicide by self-disembowelment) the 47 Ronin disguised themselves and carried out a bloody revenge. They too then committed seppuku. Japanese culture regards these assassins as heroes.

GettyImages-450320711.jpgKeanu Reeves starred in a 2013 film about the 47 Ronin

Japan’s violent political culture carried over to a modernising Japan during and after the Meiji Restoration. Samurai were resistant to changes that undermined their traditional role in society. Assassination by these regressive Samurai became rife during this period.

Okubo Toshimichi, who became the post-Meiji strongman, was murdered by seven samurai as he made his way to the Imperial Palace (Edo Castle) in 1878. Some 18 years earlier at virtually the same spot, the Sakurade Gate, Ii Naosuke, the Tairo (effectively prime minister) of the Shogun was cut down and killed by 17 Samurai; his crime was the promotion of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce which had opened the hermit kingdom to the United States.

Other reasons for assassination came as Japan’s economic and imperial power expanded. Hara Takashi, the first commoner and Christian to become prime minister was assassinated in 1921 by an ultranationalist railway worker who resented the increasing power of the Japanese Zaibatsu (business conglomerates).

The high watermark of assassinations arrived in the 1930s as the Japanese armed forces became imbued with a toxic mix of a pseudo-Bushido code and national socialist philosophies that arguably predated the rise of fascism in Germany. In November 1930, Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi, who was blamed for the London Naval Treaty, a battleship limitation agreement which was viewed as a national humiliation, was shot by a member of Aikokushu (Society of Patriots) and died of his wounds nine months later.

Over the next six years there followed the assassination of three more former or current prime ministers as young naval and army officers,often supported by their seniors, effectively ended democratic government in Japan in two episodes of bloodletting aimed at political and economic figures.

On 15 May 1932, 11 naval officers, including some members of ketsumeidan (the League of Blood) organised four hit squads. One group went to Prime Minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi’s house, where they politely removed their shoes before shooting him. However,they missed their other target, Charlie Chaplin, who was staying with Inukai; luckily for Chaplin he had gone to watch a sumo wrestling tournament.

GettyImages-104206149.jpgIn 1932, Charlie Chaplin (third from right), was targeted by a hit squad when he visited Japan

Then an attempted coup d’état by about a 100 young army officers in 1936, known as the 26 February Incident, ended the lives of two other former prime ministers, Takahashi Korekiyo and Saito Makato as well as a host of other establishment figures. At the end of the Pacific War fanatical young officers sought to capture the Emperor Hirohito to prevent his surrender and assassinated all who got in their way. In the last 160 years, nine Japanese prime ministers or their equivalents, current and former, Abe included, have been assassinated. That compares to four US presidents over the same period.

The post-war period may only have seen the assassination of one former prime minister but there have been other political killings. In 2002 Koki Ishii, a democratic party politician, was stabbed to death by a yakuza from the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi crime gang; similarly in 2007 the Mayor of Nagasaki was murdered by a gangster. But in perhaps the most horrific murder of the post-war era, in 1960 Socialist leader, Inejiro Asanuma, was run through with a wakizashi, a short sword worn by Samurai, while he was engaging in a televised debate. In a familiar Japanese pattern, Inejiro’s murderer Otoya Yamaguchi, was martyrised by the ultra-nationalists when he committed suicide.

Throughout the 20th Century, ritual suicide was used as a violent political act. In 1970 the great Japanese novelist and political activist, Yukio Mishima and followers, who denounced Emperor Hirohito for renouncing his divinity, committed seppuku in the offices of a commandant of the Japan Self Defence Force (JSDF). He wished that the JSDF be returned ‘to the Emperor.’ His closest English friend, Henry Scott-Stokes, the Financial Times correspondent in Tokyo, relayed Mishima’s explanation that ‘the reason they (Samurai) preferred to die in the most excruciating manner was that it proved the courage of the Samurai. This method of suicide was a Japanese invention and foreigners could not copy it.’

Political violence in Japan has been mainly but not exclusively the preserve of the ultra-right. However, post-war Japan has also had its own indigenous left wing terrorist group, the Chukaku-ha (Central Core Faction). This breakaway from the Japan Communist Party undertook a series of terrorist acts throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often aimed at the prevention of infrastructure. The development of Narita Airport in Chiba prefecture was a particular target. Indeed, the killing of the head Chiba prefecture’s Expropriation Committee, delayed the area’s development. Even the Chukaku-ha became subject to violence. Its leader, Nobuyoshi Honda, was himself assassinated by a rival extreme left faction in 1975.

Chukaku-ha’s most spectacular attack took place in 1986. On Sunday 4 May, the terrorists launched rocket bombs at the state guest house where G7 leaders, including President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl were present. They missed by a mile… literally. Instead, the first two rockets scored a direct hit on my apartment building in Aoyama Itchome where I was enjoying a bibulous lunch with friends on my terrace. We were showered with shrapnel. A third rocket landed in the street and a tennis ball-sized splinter nearly decapitated me.

When we look at the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe therefore, we should not be deluded into thinking that Japanese society is the island of calm that some Japanophiles imagine. Underlying this seemingly rigidly controlled and conforming society, where the levels of crime are a fraction of the West, there is an undercurrent of extreme violence thath as long historic roots.

Shinzo Abe’s life, family history, beliefs and even his death exemplify this pattern. Japanese people are not always the mythologised polite bowing caricatures depicted on television. It is a country and people that cannot escape the fact that its history and culture since the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th Century is drenched in blood.

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