Shinzo Abe, the first Japanese prime minister born after World War II, has
put changing the way Japan views its wartime history front-and-center ahead of a
major parliamentary election this weekend.
Heading into Sunday's upper house elections, Abe is stressing a "Beautiful
Japan" platform of promoting patriotism, overhauling the constitution so that
the military can play a bigger role abroad and revising school textbooks -
critics would say whitewashing history - to bolster national pride.
"I have renewed my resolve to make further progress toward realizing a new
Japan, a country admired and respected by people in the world, a country our
children's generation can have self-confidence and pride in," he said in a
speech marking Constitution Day in May.
But his avowedly nationalist stance doesn't seem to be
swaying voters, who seem more focused on scandals in his Cabinet and a perceived
lack of leadership.
His support rating, which once stood at 70 percent, has plummeted to around
30 percent. Abe himself is not up for re-election on Sunday, but polls suggest
his party could suffer a major setback.
"He talks about patriotism all the time, but I don't think people understand
what he means," said Eiken Itagaki, a well-known commentator and political
analyst. "I don't think it will help him much at the polls. In fact, I think it
is scaring voters away."
Many Japanese voters, particularly older ones, remain highly suspicious of
efforts they perceive as harkening back to the days before their country's
disastrous defeat in 1945, when Japan's government stressed nationalism and
sacrifice to bolster its military conquest of Asia.
A minority of conservatives, however, believe that the war was justified and
that war crimes have been exaggerated.
In a political gamble, Abe has been playing to that crowd.
With Abe's blessing, a group of roughly 100 lawmakers that he helped create
before taking office is undertaking a high-profile review of several
controversial World War II-era issues.
The issues include the 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese soldiers
slaughtered civilians and pillaged the city; the forced suicides of Okinawan
civilians by Japanese soldiers in 1945; and "comfort women", the euphemism for
forced prostitution during World War II.
The group of conservative lawmakers claims that excessively negative
portrayals of history serve only to hurt Japan's image and run counter to Abe's
"Beautiful Japan" policy. They want to keep such depictions out of junior high
Abe, meanwhile, is still reeling over anger from comments he made regarding
"comfort women", most of whom were Chinese or Korean.
He found himself in a firestorm - at home and abroad - after saying there was
no proof Japan's government had coerced any of the women into prostitution. The
vast majority of historians, who put their numbers at between 50,000 and
A resolution in the US Congress called on Japan to apologize for its use of
prostitutes on the front lines during World War II. Abe retorted that the
resolution was "not based on fact."
Keeping his own Cabinet in line on the interpretation of history has been
A Cabinet minister who strayed from the conservative line was forced to
resign earlier this month after suggesting that the US atomic bomb attacks on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unavoidable. Conservatives call the bombings acts of
"I just meant that there was nothing we could do about it," Defense Minister
Fumio Kyuma said after tendering his resignation. "I don't think people
understood what I meant."
Abe's one major accomplishment has been largely
ideological - education reform.
Amid widespread concern over the deterioration of the quality of Japan's
once-vaunted public school system, Abe spearheaded an effort to rewrite the
Fundamental Law on Education, which had replaced a prewar structure that was
highly nationalist in its goals.
Abe took on two specific, practical reforms - mandating a review of teacher's
licences every 10 years and granting the education minister more power to reign
in local education boards. But he also restored a stress on "moral education",
which critics have panned as an attempt to force political obedience onto
"His reforms will radically change the fabric of the education system that
was created after serious soul-searching about the mistakes Japan made in the
years before and during World War II," The Asahi, a major, left-leaning
newspaper, said in an editorial on Tuesday.
"How will the voters judge it?" The Asahi asked.
So far, Abe's message does not seem to be outweighing anger over problems
with the national pension system, questionable use of public funds for private
offices by Cabinet members and a widening gap between the rich and poor.
(China Daily 07/27/2007 page12)