Shinzo Abe and the dream of a conservative Asia

Author: Andrew Levidis, Kyoto University

In The Nobility of Failure, Ivan Morris wrote of the Japanese admiration of those figures whose ultimate failure is ennobled by the purity and sincerity of their ideals.

According to common wisdom, Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007, provided just such a model of failure. He failed to bring about revision of the postwar constitution; he failed to alter the role of the Emperor and imperial family; he failed to comprehensively reform the institutions of national security; he failed to enhance Japanese leadership in Asia; he failed to continue the structural economic reforms of the Koizumi cabinet; and he failed to insist on reform of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

His unprecedented return to the presidency of the LDP marks the culmination of a careful and deliberate political campaign waged within the LDP policy councils, conservative research institutes and monthly magazines over the course of the last three years by Abe and his supporters on the ideological right. The key to this return was Abe’s ability to articulate a vision of conservative and statist rejuvenation of Japan, defence of the social order and a willingness not to shrink from advocating a hardline approach to China and the preservation of Japanese sovereignty. His return to the leadership of the LDP provides an opportunity to re-examine the nature of his conservatism and discuss his diplomatic strategy as well as his views on the national polity, the imperial household, Japan’s role in Asia, constitutional reform and national defence.

The grandson of Nobusuke Kishi and son of former foreign minister Shintaro Abe, Shinzo Abe expressed contempt of the Tokyo Trials’ view of history and praised the Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, railed against the foreign constitution and the limitations of Article 9, rejected the characterisation of the Great East Asian War as one of aggression rather than a mission of Asian liberation, expressed scepticism over claims that Korean women were coerced by the Imperial Army into servitude, bemoaned NHK’s representation of the issue, and called for the re-examination of the 1993 Kono statement. He ardently supported revision of the postwar constitution, oversaw the evolution of the institutions of national defence, opposed moves to amend the Imperial Household law to allow female succession and stood at the vanguard of a conservative reassessment of modern Japanese history. He warned ominously of the danger of Japan’s declining population, emphasised the link between national power and an expanding population, and championed a form of social conservatism and traditionalism that he called a ‘beautiful Japan’.

From the outset, Abe’s foreign policy had two concrete political and strategic purposes. One, to avoid sudden shifts in the balance of power and make it difficult for China to make significant changes to East Asia’s multilateral institutions and existing political equilibrium; and two, to negotiate the outline of a conservative regional order opposed to China and its vision of Asian regionalism.

Japan’s diplomatic strategy toward China during the Abe cabinet was symbolised by an ‘unsentimental perception of friendship’ in which China was ‘neither enemy, nor neutral nor friend’. As premier, Abe made the symbolic decision to visit Beijing, endorsed the official declaration of wartime aggression and accepted the creation of a Sino–Japanese history commission. Yet at the same time he rejected the link between anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and the so-called history problem, criticised China experts within Japan for their ‘excessive reactions’, warned of the instability within China from the loss of the philosophical paradigm of ‘equality of outcomes’, and warned of China’s rapid acquisition of military power.

Abe’s diplomatic strategy rested on three main pillars. The first emphasised the strength of Japan’s postwar liberalism and embrace of universal values as the basis for the establishment of a Quadrilateral Dialogue, a grouping of the major Asian democracies (Japan, India and Australia) in cooperation with the United States to reinforce the liberal order in Asia. To support this initiative Abe called for an annual strategic dialogue and meeting of the heads of state in order to boost cooperation and assistance among the participating nations.

Abe’s multilateral diplomacy in Asia rested heavily upon interpretation and emphasis. Pan-Asianism would be utilised subtly to transform historical enmity into conservative reconciliation in order to achieve a moral sanction for Japanese leadership. Unsentimental calculation of interest and pragmatic adaptation combined with regional unease with the rapid growth of Chinese military power would form the basis for cooperation to reinforce the balance of power and present territorial arrangements in Asia. The broad strokes of this policy involved adjusting relations between Japan and Southeast Asian states by cultivating warmer relationships with ASEAN states, particularly Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, combined with an historical opening to India to strengthen economic, political and security relations.

Retracing the historic postwar trip to Asia by Nobusuke Kishi in 1957, Abe sought to construct the foundations for a strategic partnership with India as the cornerstone of his vision of a conservative regional order. The legacy of prewar Japan’s support for Sudhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, India’s refusal to attend the San Francisco Peace Conference and Jawaharlal Nehru’s reflection on the psychological importance of Imperial Japan’s victory over Tsarist Russia would invoke the still potent memory of anti-colonialism and Asianism to constitute a community of interests. In an address to the Indian parliament during his visit Abe articulated an expansive vision of an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity’ stretching from Japan to India and ultimately encompassing the conservative states of the Middle East as a strategic economic complement to the security focus of the Quadrilateral Dialogue.

The third pillar of Abe’s strategic thought involved the transformation of the military alliance with the United States from a defensive shield toward a more explicit expeditionary role. Abe praised American universalism and democracy promotion, and also emphasised the importance of the military alliance as a force multiplier of Japanese influence in Asia and simultaneously as Japan’s fastest route to reducing regional opposition to security change. Harshly critical of Article 9 and the constitutional interpretation restricting the exercise of collective self-defence, Abe oversaw the creation of the Ministry of Defence, the strengthening of Japan’s intelligence gathering apparatus and the re-orientation of the Self-Defence Forces’ mission.

The centerpiece of Abe’s diplomatic strategy to reinforce the status-quo in Asia and construct a conservative regional order was propelled by hubris, idealism and the Japanese yearning for ‘leadership in Asia’. It was never fully realised because it sought an impossible reconciliation between an expansive vision of Japanese leadership abroad and an unchanging conservative domestic order that arrested social change and reform. Yet at its heart it offered another vision of Asian regional order and Japan’s role that represented the basis for fundamentally altering the postwar direction of Japanese diplomacy in which the whole panoply of interests — economic, political and security — would be transformed into a policy of informal conservative alliance to announce Japan’s return to Asia. Shinzo Abe’s return to the presidency of the LDP and (potentially) to the Japanese premiership offers both opportunity and danger, and the degree to which he succeeds in reconciling the seeming contradictions within his vision will have a direct bearing upon Japan’s relations and role in Asia.

Andrew Levidis is a PhD candidate and Monbukagakusho scholar at Kyoto University.