TV & Radio
SPIEGEL ONLINE - September 6, 2006, 03:31 PM
Koizumi's Patriotism Isolating Japan
Pilgrimages to the Shrine
By Wieland Wagner
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose term runs out this month, has been feted for his reform program which hauled the country's economy out of stagnation. But his patriotic stance has isolated Japan among its Asian neighbors and his successor is likely to adopt an equally nationalistic tone.
The attacker came shortly after dusk. First he set fire to the house and office of Koichi Kato, 67, a member of the shrinking liberal minority in the lower house of Japan's parliament. As the flames consumed the building, he plunged a long knife into his stomach, committing ritual suicide in the bloody tradition of the Samurai.
The politician and his family weren't home, so the house burned to the ground without harming the intended victims. The attacker, a member of an extreme right-wing organization in Tokyo, also survived his attempted hara-kiri.
Nonetheless, the incident caused uproar in Japan, largely because of the symbolism of a right-wing fanatic committing an especially brutal attack on a liberal political.
Even more astonishing was the reaction of the establishment. For days there was no outcry, no expression of outrage, no statement from the government. The political elite chose to remain silent on the matter, at least initially. It wasn't until two weeks later that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, 64, condemned the attack on a man who is considered an outsider in Japanese politics.
Though a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for decades, Kato has been almost alone in resisting the trend toward nationalism. He has even dared to criticize the prime minister who has made regular visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan's war dead where war criminals from World War Two are revered as Shinto deities.
The rest of the world is also having trouble understanding this backward-oriented, nationalistic Japan and its odd penchant for keeping the past alive. This is the flipside of Koizumi's much-admired era of reforms. The prime minister rescued his faltering nation from its deepest recession since the war and forced the country, long resistant to reforms, to accept change. And yet at the same time his patriotic behavior helped the nationalists achieve an unexpected comeback.
Just how far Japan has drifted into nationalism in its five and half years under Koizumi will become evident on Sept. 20, when his term as president of the LDP and as prime minister comes to an end. His expected successor is just as popular as Koizumi and gives the impression that he is even more determined to promote Japan's claim to greatness, a claim it derives from the past. His name is Shinzo Abe, he is 51 and he is currently the chief cabinet secretary. Abe announced his candidacy last Friday.
Refusing to condemn Japan's wartime aggression
As prime minister, Abe plans to rewrite the constitution the United States forced on Japan in 1946 as a condition for peace, as well as upgrade Japan's military role as the US's ally in the region to enable the island nation to support the Americans militarily in the event of a war. Abe's plans are in keeping with Washington's aims to develop a new strategy to counter China as it grows into a world power, a strategy that includes a strengthened alliance with Japan and India as a counterbalance to Beijing's influence in the region.
Like Koizumi, Abe is also fond of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. But unlike Koizumi, Abe is unwilling to unmistakably brand the generals and admirals of the former Japanese Empire as war criminals, and he also refuses to condemn Japan's aggression against China and Korea before and during the war in the Pacific. When asked about the sentences handed down in the Tokyo war crimes trials after World War II, Abe says that the jury is still out among historians. In this respect, he resembles Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who says he wants to hire "experts" to investigate the Holocaust, as if there were a need to reexamine and clarify the issue.
Abe's stance is likely rooted in his own family's history. His grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi (1896 to 1987), a kind of Japanese version of Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect in Nazi Germany and later his minister for armaments. Kishi was one of the so-called reform bureaucrats who prepared China's subjugation in the 1930s and helped boost the defense industry during the war.
Kishi was arrested in 1945 but was not charged as a war criminal. He was elected prime minister in 1957 and pursued a foreign policy that in some ways anticipated Koizumi's -- blocking attempts at reconciliation with China and helping Japan assume the role of the US's principal anti-communist ally in Asia.
Koizumi has come to terms with his potential successor. The prime minister recently visited the town of Hagi in Abe's electoral district in southwestern Japan. It was in the shingle-roofed wooden huts of Hagi, in the mid-19th century, that Samurai ideologue Shoin Yoshida incited a generation of future statesmen to topple the unprogressive central government. Executed in 1859, this patriot and rebel taught his followers that the nation could only be saved from the West through radical reform, and that such reform would ultimately enable the country to "defeat America, Russia, England and France and expand the authority of the emperor over all nations."
Yoshida was the ideological ancestor of the reforms that allowed Japan to become Asia's dominant power in the late 19th century -- and that led to its decline as a hegemonic Empire in 1945.
Like a man returning to his ancestral home, Koizumi toured the town where Yoshida, whose bust he displays in his office, taught. The prime minister with the impetuous gray mane and shirt collar opened wide at the neck came to Hagi as an equal, as a reforming Samurai who managed to whip into shape the world's second-largest industrialized nation, a nation that had become stagnant in its complacency. This is the way Koizumi sees it, and so do the Japanese.
Koizumi's standing among post-war prime ministers is undisputed in his own country. He dominated his LDP party and pursued an autocratic style of government. Japan's economy is growing again, the banks have largely eliminated mountains of bad debt and Koizumi has banished deflation. He managed to push through his reforms against a phalanx of lobbyists. But amid all the applause for Koizumi the nation has overlooked the fact that the reformer has put off a number of painful decisions. He hasn't raised Japan's consumption tax which stands at just five percent. At about 841 trillion yen (€5.6 trillion), the national debt is more than one and a half times the gross domestic product. As an ageing nation, Japan will only be able to reduce its debt burden by taking the unpopular step of raising taxes, a thankless task Koizumi's successor will inherit.
In his rural electoral district, Abe can see how the losers of Koizumi's reforms are faring. Many shops are closed and young people are migrating to the big cities. In a pragmatic move to alleviate the harsher aspects of the reforms, Abe plans to introduce a government program to help bankrupt companies get a fresh start.
Abe's foreign policy is unlikely to be successful if he derives too much inspiration from his grandfather's legacy. Japan lost a great deal of its influence in Asia under Koizumi. As a result of his pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, China and South Korea now refuse to attend summit meetings with the prime minister.
If Abe intends to lead his country out of its isolation, he'll have to make symbolic overtures to its neighbors, which are of considerable economic importance to Japan. The Chinese and the Koreans will be paying close attention to the frequency of the new prime minister's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine -- and to how he behaves when he's there.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan