For a man who claims he likes to speak his mind, Shinzo Abe’s ambiguity is making him a tough politician to label.
Some say the man poised to become Japan’s next prime minister is a hawk, pointing to his hard-line stance on North Korea and his declared intention to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Others call him a realist, prepared to muffle his tough talk to soften Japan’s image and improve its stone-cold relations with China.
Yet almost everyone here agrees there is one label that fits this career politician who is almost certain to be elected head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, on Wednesday and prime minister a week after that.
To understand Abe, say friends and foes, you must understand his relationship with Nobusuke Kishi, his maternal grandfather, who died in 1987 and was once prime minister.
Kishi was no ordinary politician. He was a key architect of imperial Japan’s expansion across Asia in the 1930s, a Cabinet minister who signed the declaration of war against the United States and who was arrested and jailed -- though never charged -- as part of the select company of about two dozen top war criminals after Japan’s surrender.
His comeback as a powerful backroom political fixer, unflinching Japanese nationalist and eventually prime minister from 1957 to 1960 makes Kishi an example of what his grandson admiringly calls “fighting statesmen,” the minority of politicians willing to take an unpopular stand and stick to their convictions.
That legacy weighs on Abe, who clearly sees himself in the fighting mold.
With a great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, who was also prime minister in the 1960s, and a father, Shintaro Abe, who was a respected foreign minister and perennial candidate for the top job, the incoming prime minister boasts a pedigree that has Japan’s political class talking about his “political DNA.”
“Sometimes Abe says he has the combined DNA of his grandfather, who was a very strong figure, and his father, who was softer,” says Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s senior vice minister for internal affairs who is a close Abe advisor. “But I think the DNA of his grandfather is strongest.”
Kishi is more than just a spiritual guide to Abe. Like his grandfather, Abe chafes at living under a war-renouncing constitution written by American occupiers. And while Kishi was prime minister at a time when memories of war were fresh and rewriting the constitution was a political impossibility, Abe comes into office believing conditions are now right to put Japanese pen to the American paper.
“I seek to draft a constitution of our own that fits Japan in the 21st century,” he said during one of the candidate debates in this month’s leadership race to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. “I represent the postwar generation.”
But that generation’s determination to stir up history makes some of Japan’s neighbors nervous.
China and the two Koreas have been particularly unsettled by Abe’s questioning of the legitimacy of the Tokyo war crimes trials and alarmed by his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are honored along with about 2.5 million other Japanese war dead.
Abe, who turns 52 this week, will be the first Japanese prime minister born after World War II. Every survey shows him with a commanding grip on about 70% of the party delegates who will elect their new leader. Many are young by Japanese political standards, and the hand-over from Koizumi to Abe will mark the ascendancy of these politicians prepared to change a country they believe is crippled by excessive war guilt.
The theme of Abe’s campaign is sketched out in his book “Toward the Beautiful Country,” a collection of musings on politics and his life published in July. The book contains numerous criticisms of postwar Japan’s “masochistic teaching of history” and its collective aversion to anything having to do with the imperial era, which Abe says has left the Japanese with a “bent and narrow” psychology.
“Why not work up a good sweat and unlock the future by being proud of being Japanese rather than belittling ourselves?” he asks.
Abe says he has no plans to turn his back on Koizumi’s path of economic liberalization, but will seek ways to deal with growing alarm here over increasing disparities of wealth.
But his ambitions go beyond amending the clauses of the constitution that prevent Japan from going to war unless attacked, even to defend an ally such as the United States. Although they see the alliance with Washington as the cornerstone of Japanese security -- a position that his grandfather fought for as prime minister despite massive left-wing protests -- Abe and supporters are less pleased with many Western values imported into Japan.
Their nationalism is cultural, not militaristic, they say. They complain that an overdose of “individualism” has been a virus weakening traditional Japanese bonds of family and community. And they blame that disintegration on a 1960s culture that led to more women in the workforce and an education system that is not only slack when it comes to discipline but that fails to raise students with a sense of pride in their country.
The Abe entourage already has made it clear that its first order of business is a radical overhaul of Japan’s public education system, which they say is riddled with leftist teachers. Abe wants patriotism taught and has suggested sending students to do a year of volunteer work before entering university, even if it has to be made compulsory.
“We are not trying to go back to 1945; our conservatism is not the same as prewar politics or militarism,” says Hakubun Shimomura, an LDP ally of Abe’s and a leading critic of Japan’s education system. “We have to educate children to understand that they are not alone, that they are part of a community. So they have to learn to respect the flag, respect the anthem, because they are the symbols of the country and you have to take them seriously.”
Abe is the product of private schools. Raised in Tokyo, a second son and middle child, he has described a lonely youth in which his father was a remote figure, seldom home and obsessed with his political career. The two grew close only later, after the elder Abe insisted that his son quit his job at a multinational steel company to work as his secretary in the Foreign Ministry.
His father died of liver failure at 67 in 1991, having never reached the top job that so many had predicted would one day be his.
Abe ran for office two years later, winning his father’s old seat, but had an uneventful career until he became an outspoken critic of the government’s failure to pursue allegations that North Korea had abducted an unknown number of Japanese citizens during the Cold War.
“Nobody at the top of the party wanted to talk about it,” says Abe advisor Suga, another early leader of the campaign to call North Korea to account over the disappearances. “Abe knows that the top duty of politicians is to protect their people and the national interest. He’s a politician of strong beliefs who knows that politicians should speak their minds.”
The swell of support over his stand on North Korea emboldened Abe, solidifying his belief in the political benefits of being a “fighting statesman,” and he has already signaled he plans to tighten the economic screws on Pyongyang.
But he has also tempered some of his language while running for prime minister. Where he once defended his visits to Yasukuni Shrine on grounds of religious freedom, he has refused to say whether he will visit the memorial as prime minister.
Advisors hint that he plans to simply stay away from the shrine without promising to do so, a calculated ambiguity they hope will assuage Chinese fury over the visits while not appearing to bend to any outside pressure.
Another sign of the realist in Abe, perhaps. But it’s that sort of muddied message that will make people look to the grandfather’s record for clues about where Abe will take Japan.
“Yes, he is a hawk, but not out of a personal conviction forged in debates and discussion,” says Akira Asada, an economist and philosopher based at Kyoto University.
“Abe simply wants to be a good boy, a loyal child to the memory of his father and grandfather. And his grandfather just happened to be a hawk.”