What remains ideology

National-conservative ideology and realpolitical pragmatism - Shinzo Abe was unable to deliver on most of his radical resolutions

The decidedly nationalist agenda under which Prime Minister Abe came up has generated strong fears and yet produced rather poor results. Although Japan has emancipated itself in terms of foreign policy, it remains stuck in post-war pacifism.

Shinzo Abe's political activities were guided by a national-conservative agenda, which promised an economically and militarily renewed, "strong" Japan. The constitutional pacifism of the post-war era should give way to a revised understanding of the state that is no longer based on the dark militaristic past of the empire. With recourse to crisis narratives that portrayed a militarily weak and politically dysfunctional Japan, the political movement around Abe propagated a profound national renewal. Such, so the story goes, can only be achieved by turning away from the norms and principles of the post-war order. In the “new”, “beautiful” Japan, as Abe aimed at during his tenure, future generations should be able to live carefree on the historical legacy of the war years. This radical revisionism caused widespread fear after Abe's return to power in 2012. A strengthened Japanese nationalism and militarism, so the concern, would further destabilize East Asia.

What remains?

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that long before the abrupt announcement of Abe's resignation from the post of Japanese Prime Minister, an intense debate about the political legacy of the Abe era began. Was the Abe government a critical turning point in the Japanese post-war order? How sustainable will Abe's political work be? And what remains of the almost eight years of national-conservative politics?

The creeping death of Japanese pacifism did not begin under Abe.

Domestically, the balance sheet is mixed. As a skilful election campaigner, Abe was able to establish his conservative Liberal Democratic Party firmly in power after years of short-lived governments and to weaken the political opposition over the long term. Although he declared the change of course in defense policy as a political imperative of conservative politics, Abe did not succeed in revising the 1947 constitution with Article 9, Article 9, as the core of post-war pacifism, even after intense political debates and despite overwhelming parliamentary majorities.

The creeping death of Japanese pacifism did not just begin under Shinzo Abe, although the outgoing prime minister succeeded with his policy in largely softening the principles of constitutional pacifism. Under Abe's leadership, the constitution was reinterpreted to allow the country to participate in collective self-defense missions to protect allies. With the new mandate, defense spending was steadily increased and new military equipment was purchased. The arms export ban has been lifted and new security partnerships have been forged in the region. All of this took place within the framework of a new national security strategy that declared “proactive pacifism” to be a political leitmotif and redefined Japan's role in international politics as a formative power.

In the changed geostrategic competition for global leadership, Japan now campaigned for its vision of an “open and free Indo-Pacific”. The aim was to counter China's project of a “new silk road” with an alternative regional order. Japan's efforts to establish new strategic partnerships in Asia, the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Partnership or the free trade agreement with the EU (and soon the UK) bear witness to a new role in securing a liberal international order. In the age of globally spreading populism of the "strong men", this appears to have been shaken to its foundations.

Uncompromising attitude

The change in the post-war order, which was vehemently propagated in domestic politics, was carried by the historical revisionism of a broad-based national-conservative movement with its civil society and parliamentary lobby associations, headed by the ultra-conservative "Nippon Kaigi" and Abe. Time and again it has put a heavy strain on Japan's relations with its neighbors. This was evident in visits by high-ranking Japanese politicians to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine (Abe was also there in 2013) or in attempts to downplay or hide the crimes of the Japanese colonial and war past in school books. The conflict with South Korea escalated in particular after 2019. Not for the first time, the focus of the dispute is Japan's historical responsibility towards the thousands of Korean slave laborers enslaved in factories and mines. The fate of the young Koreans, the so-called "comfort women", who were kidnapped in military brothels, was particularly bitter.

Because of Abe's uncompromising attitude towards the victims of Japanese tyranny and because of the formalistic insistence on existing treaties, diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul reached a historic low. The modus operandi of the governments of both countries, which, however, differ ideologically in their conservative or progressive orientation, follows a populism that mobilizes broad sections of the population and thus makes a balanced and constructive dialogue to settle the disputes difficult. This reveals the contradictions of Abesch's politics, which on the one hand promised an internal departure from the post-war order and on the other hand ultimately anchored the war past in the political discourse of the present through diplomatic feuds.

Abe's attempts to settle the territorial disputes with Russia through close personal relations with President Putin and thus to bring about a peace treaty also remained unsuccessful. Just as unsuccessful was Abe's attempt to find a solution with North Korea on the kidnapping issue. During the Cold War, Pyongyang abducted Japanese citizens in order to use them, among other things, to train North Korean agents. Abe, who owes his political career not least to the support of the victims' associations of the families of abductees and his resolute stance towards North Korea, declared the complete education and repatriation of all kidnapped citizens to be a basic condition for talks with the North Korean regime and the normalization of diplomatic relations. With this stance, he ended up in diplomatic sideline when in 2018 the American ally made a 180-degree turn in dealing with Kim Jong Un and ignored Japan's core security interests with direct talks about North Korean nuclear weapons.

Trump's transaction logic

The myth of a strong man at the top of Japan was beginning to crumble. Despite making countless concessions and conjuring up a strong alliance, it became clear that Abe's close ties with President Trump brought little political gain. As recently as 2016, Abe was celebrated internationally and domestically for his “success” in establishing close relationships with the politically incalculable Trump and thus guaranteeing that he was steered into the right foreign policy channels. The reality quickly turned out to be different: Trump criticized the military alliance with Japan as too expensive and demanded more financial investment from Tokyo, even though Abe had already acted in this direction. In Trump's crude transaction logic, security policy and economic interests were suddenly on the same page. Accordingly, the pressure on Tokyo increased massively to spend more money on American troops and weapons, to conclude a free trade agreement with the USA and to open up the market for US products.

Japan's national conservative elites around Abe share Trump's concerns about China's geostrategic role. However, Japan has not yet taken a clear position on the conflict with Beijing. China was and will remain a key market for Japanese companies. Furthermore, Japan's leadership is clear that the economic reconstruction after Corona can only succeed with China. For this reason alone, an escalation is not in the interests of the export-oriented Japanese economy. Even after Abe, Tokyo will have to carefully calculate its economic and security interests in dealing with the USA and China.

In the end, the major domestic political turnaround did not materialize, even under Abe. Thus fears of a renewed excessive Japanese nationalism have been dispelled. The Abe era marked, above all, a turning point in foreign policy. While Japan's constitutional pacifism remains more or less intact, the country has succeeded in developing a realpolitical pragmatism that allows it to play a political leadership role internationally. How sustainable this change is will have to be seen under Abe's successor.

Sebastian Maslow is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Sendai Shirayuri Women's University, Sendai, Japan.