Goodbye Koizumi, Hello Abe


No matter what the world’s second economy, modern super-tech Japan, attempts these days, even when ushering in the first prime minister born after World War II, there comes an ominous rattling of old wartime bones — in this case literally.

Tokyo and the world’s media are agog as a week-long process begins today in which chief cabinet secretary and heir apparent Shinzo Abe, (52 years old on Thursday) and known as The Prince, will be installed as premier. He replaces the departing and ludicrously labelled “Lionheart” Junichiro Koizumi, 64, the Elvis fan with the permed hairdo who five years ago began his term amid enthusiastic but unfulfilled acclaim.

Both are career apparatchiks of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has ruled Japan, with one tiny interruption, for half a century of numbing dreariness. So we may ask: What’s new? Koizumi was different, they said, but he showed it in a way his fans did not expect.

He failed to install numerous promised reforms to Japan’s only-just recovering economy, which is now however burdened with the world’s highest debt-to-production ratio. Instead Koizumi demonstrated a consistent ability to alienate his nearest neighbors, China and the two Koreas, with brash demonstrations of neo-nationalism through five annual visits to a Tokyo shrine that honors 14 of Japan’s worst war criminals.

Foreign relations in east Asia deteriorated amid these manifestations of the Rising Sun’s high-flying dreams of former national glory. For those clinging to dwindling hopes that it might be an aberration, the Abe succession ensures a more belligerent conservatism that ignores Japan’s unpaid debts to its former victims.

Then, on cue, these same victims made their appearance. Just before Wednesday’s first vote to confirm Abe’s lead over his two fading party rivals, and thus ensure parliamentary endorsement next Tuesday, the old bones emerged — under a neighborhood apartment block in Toyama, Tokyo.

An AP reporter published around the world the creepy story of a nurse, aged 84, who had confessed to burying 60 to 100 bodies at the site in August 1945, to conceal them from incoming American occupation forces. The need for secrecy was because the corpses and body sections, some with holes drilled in bones and skulls, almost certainly came from Japan’s human vivisection laboratory, Unit 731, which had a secret morgue in Toyama.

As I reported in CounterPunch [May 27-29, 2006, “The Pentagon and the Japanese Mengele“], Japan’s bacteriological warfare research unit, run by army general and physician Dr Shiro Ishii from 1932-45, was larger and more extensive than anything in Nazi Germany. The main lab occupied 60-square kilometers in Pingfan, Manchuria, where the Imperial army invaded in 1931 to start its 14-year war on China. Here, and in other units such as the Toyama morgue, unknown thousands of civilians and captured soldiers, mostly Chinese but also Russian and probably some Allied prisoners of war, were subjected to experimental surgical operations without anesthesia. None survived.

China claims the Japanese killed 10 million of its citizens and that Tokyo has never made proper amends for this or the destruction of its cities. Japan has apologized several times — Abe made a half-hearted one earlier this month — but fails to manifest much conviction about its remorse. One example: Tokyo refuses to perform DNA tests on any Unit 731 victims’ remains, despite repeated requests from next-of-kin.

So here they came again, the gruesome ghosts and relicts of Japan’s brutalities in Asia. But perhaps this is not fair. Should we forgive and forget the vanishing past? Perhaps, except Abe himself brings unseemly reminders of it all.

He was born to rule, they say, and his patriotic conservatism suits Japan’s resurgent nationalism and continuing refusal to bow to Asian demands for recompense. Abe said recently: “Over the past 60 years Japan has developed into a peaceful and democratic country while reflecting honestly on the fact that many Japanese have suffered great misery and that Japan caused great suffering and left scars on people in many countries.”

Then he added: “With regards to the evaluation of the war, however, I think that should be left to historians.” This is a familiar Japanese right-wing maneuver to avoid blame and perpetrate Japan’s argument that the Pacific war was self-defense against aggression from the U.S. and Britain. Indeed, this exact rationale appears beside exhibits in the war museum adjoining the Yasukuni (“peaceful country”) memorial shrine that Koizumi visits.

So how about history and this college-educated prime minister who studied politics at the University of Southern California? As Japanese critic and Asian economics specialist Hiroyuki Saka said: “I question whether a person who cannot even declare his own view of history is fit to be Japan’s next leader.”

Abe is also a hypocrite, for it was he who led recent promotion of new school text books in Japan that describe the Pacific war as self-defense. He already has the history sewn up to his satisfaction. This kind of attitude understandably infuriates Japan’s Asian critics.

Yet despite his professed withdrawal from history, Abe intends to seek abolition of the historical and unique U.S.-imposed constitution’s Article 9 that created a pacifist Japan by banning war and permitting only genuine self-defense. He also plans to follow Japan’s recent military, but non-combat, foray into Iraq with more overseas expeditions by its perhaps renamed “self-defense forces”. Lebanon is mentioned.

As he said in his book published in July, Toward a Beautiful Country (or should it be Dutiful Country?): “Yes, your own life is precious. But I wonder if postwar Japanese have ever imagined that there are values to be protected even by sacrificing their lives to defend the homeland.” Abe has never experienced military service.

Yet as he seems to agree he was born to rule, what are his birth origins?

His grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, an unindicted war criminal imprisoned by the U.S. occupation for his role as munitions minister during the Pacific war — Japan’s equivalent of Germany’s Albert Speer, whose similar Nazi post earned him 20 years in Spandau prison. Kishi was released as Americans put Cold War considerations above justice. His response: to declare the Tokyo War Tribunal he so narrowly escaped a “farce” whose effects he then worked strenuously to undo.

And he could, for Kishi became Japan’s prime minister in 1957. He also cemented the 1960 U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, something his grandson heartily supports today, while pushing for more vigorous Japanese military participation. Yet Kishi, who helped the Imperial army loot Manchuria, continued his dark past by cultivating a trio of millionaire fellow looters who helped finance the LDP, which Kishi largely founded.

Abe’s father Shintaro Abe was foreign minister under LDP premier Yasuhiro Nakasone, who in 1982 became the first prime minister to actively advocate remilitarization. His foreign minister eagerly supported him, and again son Shinzo inherits that enthusiasm.

So World War II lingers in Japan through its nepotistic politics. Koizumi’s father, Junya, was a second generation member of the Diet (parliament) elected in 1937. He served under the wartime militarist extremists and in 1944 supervised consrtruction of an airport where kamikaze pilots took off on their suicide missions. The occupation purged Junya in the late 1940s but he returned to the Diet and became a close supporters of — guess — premier Kishi who, after finishing his term, helped Junya Koizumi become chief of the Defense Agency in 1962.

Son Junichiro as prime minister furthered the wartime connection by appointing as his foreign minister in October last year Taro Aso, whose father owned eight coal mines, including one in the southern island of Kyushu where enslaved thousands of Koreans and 300 British and Australian prisoners of war toiled in dangerous underground work during the war. Taro Aso, a failing rival of Abe for the premiership, ran the mining company in the 1970s and apparently permitted concealment of the remains of dead laborers during that time. He has still not acknowledged his slavery connection.

Will he be retained by Abe? Will others with wartime lineage join Abe’s government? We will soon know. Meanwhile some cynical foreign observers already describe the new regime as the “Manchurian clique”.

In a Japanese context perhaps the Manchurian Candidate is THE analogy for the war baggage that Abe brings with him, though its brain-washing story goes too far — although Unit 731 would qualify as sinister enough. The new prime minister’s other antecedents, however, offer speculation of a disquieting kind.

CHRISTOPHER REED is a British freelance journalist living in Japan. His email <>