Japan's Abe, Poised to Lead, Offers Nation Vision of Pride

Shinzo Abe is overwhelming favorite in race to be Japan's next prime minister.
Shinzo Abe is overwhelming favorite in race to be Japan's next prime minister. (By Shuji Kajiyama -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

TOKYO -- To glimpse the brave new Japan of Shinzo Abe -- the hawkish 51-year-old poised to replace Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister next week -- take a peek inside the eighth-grade history classes at this city's prestigious Tamagawa Academy.

Using new textbooks with lessons hailed by Abe as the foundation of a more confident nation, junior high students at the elite private school are this year being taught something that has been largely taboo in post-World War II Japan -- to take pride in their country. The texts omit or soften references to atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the war, assure students that the war was waged primarily in self-defense and promote the ideal of a proud and independent Japan.

The controversial books, thus far adopted by only a handful of schools, have the support of the government and are set for wider distribution. But they are only part of Abe's vision for the future. He has vowed to push through a sweeping education bill, strengthening the notion of patriotism in public classrooms in a way not seen since the fall of Imperial Japan, and to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution to allow the country to again have an official and flexible military.

Abe (pronounced ah-bay) may well get his way. Currently Japan's chief cabinet secretary, he is overwhelmingly favored to succeed the retiring Koizumi in ruling party elections on Wednesday, a win that would effectively guarantee him the prime minister's post after a full vote of parliament on Sept. 26.

Although his proposals have flustered Japan's neighbors in Asia, where war-related grievances linger just below the surface, Abe and others define the changes as a natural maturing of Japanese democracy. Perhaps more importantly, they say the changes reflect the need for Japan to transform itself in the face of new threats.

In the decades after World War II, most Japanese took pride in their country's role as the world's model pacifist society, which operated by the rules of "checkbook diplomacy" and left its defense largely to U.S. military might. But today Japan is confronting the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea and the reality of a China that has become a military and economic superpower.

The rise of Abe, an unabashed nationalist set to be Japan's youngest postwar prime minister and its first to be born after the conflict, underscores a profound shift in thinking that has been shaped by those threats.

"Rather than getting praised for wrestling a good round of sumo under the rules that foreign countries make, we should join in the making of the rules," Abe said in a televised debate this month. ". . . I believe I can create a new Japan with a new vision."

Japan's foreign minister, Taro Aso, and its finance minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, are also competing for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. But neither is as pedigreed as Abe to deliver on promises. His father, Shintaro Abe, served as foreign minister; his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was initially arrested as a World War II criminal but escaped the gallows to become prime minister in 1957.

In Abe's latest book, "Toward a Beautiful Country," Japan's presumptive new leader casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal that convicted Japan's wartime leaders. Asked by a foreign journalist last September whether he regretted Japan's defeat in the war, Abe briskly replied, "You refer to me as rather nationalistic, but I say that the person who is not patriotic cannot be the leader of his country."

The handpicked successor of Koizumi, a charismatic leader who laid the groundwork for Japan's gradual emergence from its pacifist shell, Abe has crafted a comparatively ambitious vision. Although he is likely to maintain Koizumi's emphasis on the U.S.-Japan alliance as the basis of national defense, he has also suggested he wants Japan to be a more equal partner. Some analysts predict that he will strive for a version of Washington's relationship with Britain, which closely cooperates with the U.S. military but acts on its own as it sees fit.

Analysts also note that Abe is popular largely because of -- not despite -- his unusually hawkish stance. He has been particularly fierce on the subject of communist North Korea, now seen as Japan's greatest security threat. When North Korea launched a battery of new test missiles on July 4, Abe went far beyond the diplomatic talking points, calling for a debate on whether Tokyo could stage a preemptive strike on North Korean missile bases.

Ten years ago, analysts note, such boldness would have sparked a public outcry here for his resignation. Today, it has helped ensure his election as Japan's prodigal samurai returned.

"Abe recognizes that Japan can no longer be the country it has been. We cannot sit back in the face of new dangers," said Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP legislator and close Abe ally. "Under our current constitution, if a U.S. ship is attacked aside a Japanese ship, we cannot even fight to defend our American allies. What kind of partner does that make us? We are living in a more dangerous world and it calls for a strong leader."

Abe's popularity has buoyed conservatives, who see him as the natural heir to Koizumi as the Japanese regain their pride. Though Koizumi infuriated China and the Koreas by visiting a shrine that honors Japan's military dead, including convicted war criminals, he unambiguously upheld the government's landmark 1995 apology, which recognized World War II as an act of Japanese aggression. Abe, in contrast, has been less clear, saying he recognizes the "spirit" of the apology but suggesting that historians should be the final judges of Japan's past actions.

Japanese pacifists, whose shrinking ranks have made them a minority voice here, have become anxious. They point to the continuing influence of rightist groups with armored black vans, whose members use bullhorns to shout racist propaganda on the streets of major Japanese cities. They also cite the punishments meted out to teachers who have refused to comply with recent requirements to stand for the national anthem and bow to the Japanese flag at school graduation and entrance ceremonies.

"I have a sense that the postwar generation of politicians in Japan -- including Abe -- have lost the older generation's sense of war guilt," said Takayoshi Miyagawa, a political strategist and noted pacifist in Tokyo. "This is taking Japan down a path we should not be going down again. It is a path that is leading us back toward a wicked nationalism that the young have now forgotten about."

Advocates of rebuilding Japanese patriotism call such talk alarmist, saying six decades as Asia's leading democracy and dominant economy have earned Japan the right to pride. The movement, they add, is not going forward without caution. At Tamagawa Academy, for instance, students using the revised, and more flattering, history books have also been told to use the old ones as supplemental material to help them formulate their own conclusions.

"We are trying to strike a balance between our role as teachers and our desire to give young Japanese a chance to be proud of their country," said Kiyoaki Ishizuka, Tamagawa's junior high headmaster. "The youth of every other nation enjoys that right. Why shouldn't Japan's?"

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