Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new term could open old wounds by rewriting country's post-war remorse


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has returned to work this week after romping home to victory in the general election, promising to fix the nation’s huge economy.

Mr Abe has so far said less about his political obsession: whitewashing the past. For evidence, take the 19 members of his cabinet: 14 belong to a parliamentary league that supports worshipping at Yasukuni, the controversial Tokyo war memorial that enshrines Japan’s Second World War leaders.

Questioned this week about whether he intends to visit Yasukuni on 15 August, the day Japan surrendered in the Second World War, the Prime Minister said: “It’s natural to pray and show respect for those who died fighting for the nation.”

However, a pilgrimage to Yasukuni also implies endorsement of the leaders and their war aims, which is why China and South Korea – both victims of Japan’s wartime aggression – demand the Prime Minister doesn’t go. 

Mr Abe’s Cabinet is striking in its obsession with the past. Thirteen lawmakers support Nihon Kaigi, a nationalist think-tank that rejects Japan’s “apology diplomacy” for its wartime misdeeds. Nine belong to a parliamentary association for “reflecting” on history education, or revisionists who deny most of Japan’s war crimes. 

The Cabinet line-up includes Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, who wants to consign to history’s dustbin not just the landmark 1995 Murayama Statement, expressing “remorse” to Asia for Japan’s wartime atrocities, but even the verdicts of the 1946-48 Tokyo war crimes trials. 

Mr Abe himself wants to revise three of the country’s basic modern charters: the 1946 Constitution, the Education law, which he thinks undervalues patriotism, and the nation’s security treaty with the US, which constrains Japan to a junior role. 

If Mr Abe’s brief taste of power in 2006-07 taught him anything, however, it is that few ordinary Japanese share his appetite for root-and-branch makeover of the nation’s postwar architecture. So he has trodden very carefully since retaking power last December, carefully avoiding what he calls diplomatic “misunderstandings”.

In late April, Mr Abe queried the definition of “aggression” in relation to Japan’s colonial wars in Asia, undermining the basis of Tokyo’s relations with its former victims. During election campaigning, he said such judgments were “best left to historians”, again declining to use the word “aggression”.

The key question following Mr Abe’s victory then is: will his political obsessions override his economic judgment? The answer could have profound consequences for the world: Japan is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China, its biggest trading partner. Political misjudgment could worsen already badly corroded ties between the planet’s second and third largest economies. 

The Prime Minister’s political resurrection has been built on his economic policies, dubbed Abenomics. But as political scientist Koichi Nakano says: “This is really not the reason why he’s in politics in the first place. He’s a hardcore nationalist with a very jarring revisionist view of history.”

But Mr Abe will struggle to get what he wants. His government’s coalition partner, New Komeito, is a Buddhist-backed party that supports the pacifist constitution. Then there is the likely reaction from China and South Korea, and from Japan’s key ally, Washington, which does not want to be dragged into conflict in Asia. And Japan’s voters have elected him to focus on the economy, not the past.