Magazine article Newsweek

How Shinzo Abe Became Postwar Japan's Most Consequential Leader; from Now on, Japan's Military, Known as Its Self-Defense Forces, Will Be Permitted to Fight Overseas

Magazine article Newsweek

How Shinzo Abe Became Postwar Japan's Most Consequential Leader; from Now on, Japan's Military, Known as Its Self-Defense Forces, Will Be Permitted to Fight Overseas

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Powell

Updated | It's easy to think of Japan as the country that has fallen and can't get up. The country that's in a perpetual economic funk--more than two decades and counting; a country that can't escape deflation no matter how hard it tries. In an era when Western business executives and traders obsess over China, and governments focus on ISIS, Syria, Iran and Vladimir Putin, Japan has receded into international obscurity.

But while much of the world was looking away, Shinzo Abe, the country's prime minister since 2012, has become one of the most consequential Japanese politicians of the postwar era. That became undeniable in the wee hours of September 19, a Saturday morning, when the Japanese parliament (the Diet) passed a series of historic--indeed, once unthinkable--bills, despite massive protests on the streets of Tokyo. From now on, Japan's military, known as its Self-Defense Forces, will be permitted to fight overseas, under the guise of self-defense or coming to an ally's aid--even if Japan is not directly threatened.

It was the most significant shift in Tokyo's defense policy since World War II. The constitution adopted in 1947 during the occupation presided over by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur renounced war, and in its famous Article 9 Japan "formally committed itself to a pacifist course," as American historian John Dower put it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. "The radicalism of these policies," he wrote, "shocked the elites who held power when the war ended.''

One of those elites was Nobusuke Kishi, who helped run the Japanese occupation of Manchuria before wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo named him to his cabinet as minister of munitions. After Japan's surrender, the U.S. arrested Kishi and held him as an alleged war criminal for three years, but never brought him to trial. Less than a decade later--with the U.S. having turned its attention to waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union--Kishi, a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, became Japan's prime minister.

Kishi loathed Article 9, but he was stuck with it. So he tried to amend another central plank of Tokyo's postwar order: the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. He believed it made Japan a vassal of Washington and worked furiously to revise it. In 1960, he persuaded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to amend the treaty and presented this new version to the Diet for ratification. That triggered huge demonstrations in Tokyo, including one in which a university student was killed in clashes with police in front of the Diet building. The treaty was amended, but Kishi was forced to resign.

Nobusuke Kishi was Shinzo Abe's grandfather. And it is an article of faith among the political left in Japan, which views Abe as a neo-nationalist at minimum and a full-throated militarist at worst, that in his pursuit of the historic security bills passed on September 19, he is moving Japan closer to the vision that animated his grandfather: that of a country with a once-again powerful military, able and willing to project force on its own--and no longer Washington's security lapdog. And there was, indeed, a "deja vu all over again" quality to the furious debate over the legislation. In the run-up to the passage of the bills, Tokyo was again the scene of massive protests that conjured images of the so-called Days of Rage demonstrations against Kishi in 1960.

The people around Abe reject the notion that he is following his grandfather's example. Tokyo's security environment is now defined, they say, by a rising and hostile China rapidly increasing its own defense spending and openly making territorial claims to islands that are indisputably part of Japan. "This has nothing to do with the prime minister's grandfather," says one Abe adviser. …

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