The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – apparently by someone enraged by the close ties between Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party and the cultish Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon – has led to an outpouring of remembrances. Obituaries have focused on Abe’s efforts to revive Japan’s flagging economy (“Abenonomics”) and his plans to reform the Japanese state. Nearly all have described him as a figure of controversy for his nationalist political and ideological agenda.
Given Abe’s association with the militaristic revanchism of the Japanese right, it’s worth remembering just what this powerful wing of Japan’s political establishment wants. Abe was known for his aggressive posture toward regional rivals like China and North Korea, and for his efforts to revise Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and pass a “Collective Self-Defense Act” to permit a major expansion of the Japanese military and its role in the American-led East Asian alliance. But behind these contemporary foreign policy ambitions lay a hard right ideology committed to glossing over the wartime actions of Japanese officials during WWII (including his own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese Prime Minister in the late 1950’s, whose brutal rule of Manchuria earned him the nickname “Monster of the Shōwa era”).
The WWII Japanese government was ruled by a combination of right-wing nationalists and military officials, acting with the tacit agreement of the Emperor. This arrangement had been cemented by the elimination of various liberal and left-wing groups, and the use of open violence (including public assassinations) against dissenting politicians during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Before and during WWII, the militarists who controlled the Japanese state were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.
In the US, knowledge of just what Japan did in the War is mostly limited to the battles of the Pacific Theater. The postwar US occupation of Japan, and the latter’s central role in the alliance against China and the Soviets, and particularly in the Korean War, meant that Japanese activities on the Asian mainland were largely papered over. That makes the current lack of discussion of Abe’s historical revisionism all the more disturbing.
In fact, the Japanese Empire’s expansion into the Asian mainland began well before Pearl Harbor. In Korea, Japan waged a more than three decade long occupation that lasted from 1910 to 1945. In China, the occupation of Manchuria, and the resulting creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo in the fall of 1931, was followed by a large-scale invasion and occupation of Chinese territory in 1937. In Southeast Asia, Japan occupied the northern portion of Vietnam – then part of French Indochina – in late 1940.
These expansionary moves were predicated on a staggering level of brutality by the Japanese military and local occupation authorities, reminiscent of the worst crimes of the Western colonial powers. In China, where Japan’s wartime government – controlled by an uneasy alliance of the Army and Navy high commands – quickly found itself stuck in a quagmire, the military engaged in mass killings of civilians and the carpet bombing of Chinese cities. The “China Incident” (as it was called) led to a death toll estimated at between three and fifteen million people.
In Korea, Japanese colonialism, which combined a proto-developmentalist state with widespread political and cultural repression, created divisions that helped precipitate the Korean War (as documented brilliantly by the late historian Bruce Cummings). While best known in the US for the widespread use of so-called “comfort women,” the Japanese occupation was also marked by intense violence, including the killing of political dissidents.
In Vietnam, the war resistance to the Japanese lay the basis for subsequent Independence War and the Viet Minh’s fight against first the French and then the United States.
A similar picture emerges in other countries occupied by the Japanese Empire during the War, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
So why isn’t this history better known in the US today?
The reason has to do with Cold War era political machinations. In Japan, the end of WWII saw a return of the liberals, trade unionists, and left wingers who had spent decades under the thumb of the right-wing militarists who ran the Japanese Empire. At first, US occupation authorities provided some encouragement to these groups. But once ensconced as the head of the postwar American occupation regime, the administration of the pathologically right-wing US General Douglas MacArthur reversed course. Motivated by growing anti-Soviet hysteria, MacArthur empowered many of the same conservative and business forces that had dominated prewar Japanese politics.
As Japan turned from a wartime enemy to an important postwar ally, American officials came to view the enemies of the Japanese Empire as a threat. In Korea, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere, left-wingers who had built reputations as intransigent opponents of Japan’s occupation became leading antagonists in the postwar conflicts that marked the start of the Cold War.
These considerations came to a head with the start of the Korean War in June 1950. When, after years of violent clashes across the Korean peninsula, the Northern invasion of South Korea led the US to send large numbers of ground troops, Japan became a crucial staging ground and source of essential supplies.
In the fog of the new war, the crimes of the Japanese Empire, once a focal point of American propaganda, were whitewashed.
During Abe’s time in office, his efforts to expand Japan’s military presence dovetailed with the aims of American officials pushing for the US to make a “pivot to Asia.” The consequence was to effectively accept the continued downplaying of Japanese war crimes during WWII.
This history, which hasn’t been forgotten in places like China and Korea, is crucial context for today’s geopolitical battles in East Asia. It’s why Shinzo Abe was a figure of such controversy. And it’s an important reminder that, whenever a foreign leader dies, the American press will see their legacy through the prism of our own political calculations.