Op-Ed: Shinzo Abe’s appeal to nostalgia and nationalism


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s great affection for Takashi Yamazaki’s “The Eternal Zero,” a 2014 box-office hit about a kamikaze pilot, is well known. The movie engendered endless debate about whether it was a creepy, weepy apologia for the war, a question raised about many of Japan’s recent war films.

On the one hand, the film’s pilot hero hopes for peace, hating the war and the cruel military officers sending his buddies to early graves. On the other, his spectacular skill in dogfights against Americans defines the film’s extensive action sequences. Ultimately, his self-sacrifice earns him, generations later, the respect his grandchildren belatedly feel for him. This kind of sentimental nostalgia the public embraces; less so the bitter historical revisionism Abe’s allies have sometimes championed.

Abe has made no secret of his frustration with the U.S. imposition of a pacifist constitution and a victor’s judgment of war guilt on Japan. Partly for this reason, observers in Washington and Europe have noted in recent days what they take to be his surprising pragmatism, eschewing for now a wholesale push for constitutional revision in favor of economic reform and the construction of multilateral diplomatic ties.


Indeed, it seems that he made the political calculation that diplomatic pragmatism would be most beneficial to his effort to maintain control over Japan’s upper house in parliament in the July elections. He also explicitly, and even surprisingly, campaigned on his close personal relationship with President Trump.

The Japanese media’s view of Trump — less a moral catastrophe than a glaringly ill-informed, capricious loudmouth who is friendly when flattered — doesn’t make Abe’s friendship with Trump particularly controversial. It makes Trump, for many in Japan, a pretty good avatar for America itself.

Of course, Abe has achieved little of note with Trump, who withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in his immediate efforts to dismantle anything bearing President Obama’s fingerprints. But Abe has, through golf trips and the exchange of MAGA-inspired caps, seemingly prevented the worst: a 1980s-style trade war or the withdrawal of American troops from Japan in a nuclear deal with Kim Jong Un.

Critics in Japan have long lamented Abe’s efforts to intimidate the timorous Japanese news media, his dubiously constitutional methods in ramming through security and surveillance legislation, and his economic policies, which balance the nation’s financial books on the backs of its poorest citizens. Indeed, although Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner together retained control of the upper house, the LDP lost seats, likely because of Abe’s commitment to an unpopular sales tax hike later this year.

Abe no longer commands the two-thirds supermajority required to pass a constitutional revision proposal to expand Japan’s military capabilities without painstaking negotiations with opposition lawmakers. But at the same time, there is no move afoot within the party to unseat Abe because the party’s steady parliamentary majority has denied his many LDP rivals the opportunity to argue that they would do better.

In this, Abe has been something of an escape artist, surviving scandals — like the 2017 revelation that national land had been sold for a pittance to an Abe ally, a right-wing school operator — that might have felled others. And he will almost certainly keep his office through next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, an achievement he considers a personal legacy.


For all the concerns that Abe is spearheading a right-wing turn in Japan, the nationalistic mood that buoys him seems largely rooted in nostalgia not for the wartime past, but for the future that Japan had expected until the financial bubble burst in the early 1990s, leading to decades of slow growth instead of unquestioned global economic leadership.

Japan’s “miracle economy” from the late 1950s through the 1980s is now remembered not just for the national wealth it produced, but for the national unity on which it ostensibly rested and for the future it had promised.

When the organizing committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics selected Yamazaki to direct the opening ceremony, it was very likely because of the enduring popularity of his “Always: Sunset on Third Street” trilogy, not “The Eternal Zero.” The trilogy, based on a successful manga series, traces the sweetly comic interactions of post-World War II Tokyo residents, each film portraying the virtues of family love, generosity and kindness, set against the backdrop of a nationally unifying moment, like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

This, too, is nationalism. The story Yamazaki is likely to tell at the Olympics is one of postwar collective effort and the sacrifice and dedication that produced Japan’s technology, its wealth, its scientific creations. And it will be this Japan — the peaceful one that ought to be trusted with a larger role in securing the world — that Abe will want people to see.

He will probably be reluctant to eclipse that story with a fully revisionist agenda in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. But it’s likely he’s hoping younger Japanese will rethink Japan’s past and reconsider the question of what authority and power their nation should have on the global stage.

David Leheny is a professor in the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University.