Much was made during the visit of the ‘shared values’ that unite Australia and Japan. But are the values of Abe or his government really widely shared? From the time of his entry into the national Diet in 1993, Abe immersed himself in the historical revisionist cause, resisting moves towards formal apology for the war and compensation for war victims and objecting to what he and his colleagues refer to scathingly as a ‘Tokyo Tribunal view of history’. He believes Japan was unjustly blamed for the China and Pacific wars of 1931 to 1945. As his friend Hyakuta Naoki, Abe-appointed director of national broadcaster NHK, put it earlier this year, the Nanjing massacre of 1937 never occurred and Americans had ‘fabricated war crimes against Japanese leaders in order to cover up American atrocities’. He and most of his cabinet today belong to organisations that look back to wartime Japan for inspiration, with names such as Dietmembers Associations ‘for the Passing on of a Correct History’, for a ‘Bright Japan’ and ‘Reflection on Japan’s Future and History Education’, and the ‘Shinto Politics League’. The basic principle of Shinto politics was articulated in January 2000 by then prime minister Mori Yoshiro, who referred to Japan as an ‘emperor-centred country of the gods’—precisely the view held by those who led Japan to the disastrous wars of the 1930s and 1940s.
The politician Abe professes to admire most is his own (maternal) grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke (1896–1987). Kishi was economic czar of Manchuria (Northeast China) in the 1930s, became minister for trade and industry in the Tojo Hideki cabinet from 1941 and signed the declaration of war against the United States, holding office in the wartime government till shortly before war’s end and being then held for three years as a suspected Class ‘A’ war criminal. Released, however, in December 1948, he became prime minister from 1957 (in which capacity he first visited Australia) to 1960. Tim Weiner’s History of the CIA refers to him as ‘one of the two most influential agents the United States ever recruited … [and who] helped carry out the CIA mission to control the government’ (which continued up to the 1970s). Commonly seen as nationalists, Abe and his grandfather are both better seen as servants of the United States posing as nationalists.
Unlike Australia, in the United States it is clear some harbour serious doubts over what values are shared with Japan. When Tony Abbott extended the invitation to Mr Abe to address a joint sitting of the Australian parliament, one wonders whether he was aware:
- that the US government has consistently denied the honour of a formal congressional address to Japan’s leaders, even though it has extended such an honour to successive Korean presidents (five in all).
- that Abe in his first spell in government (2006–07) had been subject to formal rebuke by the United States on human-rights grounds (House of Representatives Resolution 101 of 2007) for failure to acknowledge and compensate the victims of the wartime ‘comfort women’ system, and that similar resolutions had also been adopted by Canada and the EU.
- that while Abe in 2013 had to be satisfied with a businesslike White House lunch with President Obama, with no shared press conference, Chinese president Xi Jinping shortly afterwards got a respectful reception and spent a couple of days with Obama on a California ranch.
- that, when Abe brushed off strong US objections and in December 2013 visited Yasukuni Shrine, the US embassy in Tokyo released a statement that ‘the United States is disappointed [sic.] that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours’, and ordered him not to repeat it.
- that President Obama himself directly rebuked Abe (in reference to his China policy) in front of a Tokyo press conference in April 2014.
In short, the present government of the United States has serious differences with the Abe Japanese government on both war memory and China (and Korea) policy. Japanese governments have striven desperately to secure from Washington the sort of honour bestowed on them in July 2014 by Canberra. Indeed it may well be that it was Washington’s ‘Japan handlers’—some at least of them also its ‘Australia handlers’—who put together the Australia honour. Much as the George W. Bush administration put together a visit by Prime Minister Koizumi in 2007 to the Elvis Presley shrine in Memphis to compensate him for the invitation to Congress he too desired but could not be granted, so for Abe Canberra would substitute for Washington. In its apparently unlimited enthusiasm over its new ‘special relationship’, Australia now is notably out of step with Washington, and Abe’s uncritical and extravagant Australian reception must have delighted him.