TV & Radio
The Age, Australia
Shogun for past and present
Deborah Cameron, Tokyo
September 16, 2006
SHINZO Abe, at unbackable odds to be elected leader in a party vote next week, taps into a strong current.
Whether at Tokyo's "Electric Town" — a bonfire of neon, noise and nerds, where geeky men with no knack for conversation are served green tea by girls in frills — or rubbing shoulders with other silvertails, Mr Abe puts very little distance between the past and the future.
"Our nation, Japan, is blessed with beautiful nature and has a long history and a unique culture," writes Mr Abe, 51, in his new book, Towards a Beautiful Nation.
"And we still have great potential. I think it is our courage, wisdom and efforts that bring out this potential. Instead of disparaging ourselves, we should be proud of ourselves for being Japanese, and we should work hard to cultivate our future.
"Let's talk about what we should do for Japan's tomorrow, rather than concentrating on what is wrong with Japan."
He sees nothing humbling in Japan's military past, and does not want it to wear history's black armband. Eight in 10 voters support him, say the opinion polls.
Mr Abe is a shogun for the new era, a lordly and powerful symbol in a clannish society. Just like the infant Prince Hisahito, born last week to the imperial family, Mr Abe is the heir to a dynasty in a society that has never quite left such notions behind.
His grandfather, whom he idolised, was a former prime minister, and his father was a foreign minister. He has "inherited political DNA", according to the editor-in-chief of the politically connected Tokyo Insideline, Takao Toshikawa.
After Wednesday, Mr Abe will head a highly successful country as it makes a crucial turn in its history.
There is an economic recovery to stabilise, a world role to finesse, trade pacts to make, possible constitutional change, and a diplomatic tightrope to walk that is crucial to the strategic and defence balance of Asia.
Japan's desperation for oil resources has pushed it closer to Iran, and a major Japanese company is being investigated over the illegal sale of equipment useful to nuclear bomb makers.
At the same time, relations with China and Korea are in a white-hot zone, and the US, worried about the nationalist tide in Japan, is wary.
US military bases remain to be realigned at great expense in defiance of local protest, and there are plans for a missile shield.
"Now the US side must, for the first time, make decisions about how it positions itself as an ally of Japan in the growing competition between Tokyo and Beijing," said a former White House co-ordinator of Asia policy, Michael Green, in December.
Dr Green has since "conveyed great concern" to Mr Abe about visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, the inflammatory Shinto memorial that deifies executed war criminals along with other war dead, according to Mr Toshikawa, of Tokyo Insideline.
Dr Green is a "mentor" for Mr Abe, he says, calling him a "realist" and a "pragmatist".
But it is still too early to declare Mr Abe a "pragmatist" or to say what he will do as prime minister, says Robyn Lim, an Australian, who is a professor of international relations at Nanzan University and a former analyst with the Office of National Assessments.
"Mr Abe seems to be a much more traditional kind of politician than Prime Minister Koizumi," she says.
His political power has grown because he has given staunch support to families campaigning for the return of relatives abducted by North Korea, according to Professor Lim.
And his support for an economic blockade on the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il, and even a first strike if necessary, have only added lustre.
His political DNA explains only one side of him. Another strand comes from being a nationalist in a country that can be downright strange.
It is, after all, a place where the height of culinary adventure is fugu, a deadly poisonous fish. And though it is intensely debating the rise of the bludger, Japan has set the standard for wage slavery in the modern world. Not only that, it also gives legal recognition to overwork as a cause of death. "Although it seems incredible, 14 per cent of Japanese children live in poverty, which is above the OECD average of 11 per cent," wrote the chief economist at Merrill Lynch in Tokyo, Jesper Koll, in the Far Eastern Economic Review this month.
"For a country that also boasts 14 per cent of the world's millionaires, this is a shocking statistic."
Immigration, the women's movement, student radicalism, gay rights, AIDS activism, even vegetarianism and animal rights, have all passed by, leaving no visible impression.
Rather like the French in Europe, the Japanese are inclined to give the impression that they feel superior to their neighbours. Deep down in roots that connect to language, food and manners, Japan believes that it is special, if not unique.
Every evening, when Japan's next prime minister steps out of his loafers and treads noiselessly across his floor, he is honouring habit, etiquette and tradition.
Mr Abe eats at a low table, with his knees tucked under him, and has known only elegance and prosperity. His mother is a noted calligrapher and though he spent two years in the US as a student and young worker, Mr Abe has an air of aristocratic detachment.
"He is always exceedingly polite and he doesn't talk very much," say diplomats who have dealt with him.
Though he has no children of his own to drag him out and about, he is bristling with thoughts about where young people are going wrong. He thinks six months of volunteer work should be a prerequisite to university entrance, presumably because it would straighten them out, and he fervently believes that schools should teach an unquestioning love of Japan as part of the syllabus. The country's current reality is beyond his experience.
After five years of Junichiro Koizumi's reform-minded government, weariness has set in.
The main political opposition, humiliated at the last election, has lost its voice.
After a string of tough years, the common question among talk show hosts is: "Where has it got us?"
The news line-up is thick with reports of the emergence of an underclass, the decline of morals and respect, the low rate of marriage, the rise in HIV infections, and the combined effects of rapid ageing and a low birth rate that is looming as a national catastrophe.
Mr Abe believes he has the answers. Japan is about to have a DNA test.