On the evening of Thursday, 7 July, I was reading some of the coverage of the House of Councillors campaign and winding down for the evening when I saw the news flash on Twitter. I don’t remember the exact tweet I saw, I just remember the words, “Abe Shinzō,” “collapse,” “blood,” “sound of gunshots.”
I immediately opened up the streaming service I use to watch Japanese TV, and so began a sleepless twenty-four-hour stretch, following the news and then, after Abe was officially confirmed to have died at around 4:00am ET, conducting interviews for print and broadcast news and writing several articles on his legacy until around 11pm on Friday.
Needless to say, this schedule did not afford much time for emotional reflection. But now that time has passed, the pace of requests for comment has slowed, and Abe’s funeral is complete, I’ve had a little more time to reflect. It’s hard not to feel saddened by his death, by the suddenness of it, by the senselessness, and by the brutality of it.
When I decided to write a book on Abe’s life and legacy, I don’t think I realized how the act of writing the story of a person’s life forever links you to your subject. After all, I did not write “Shinzō Abe – the authorized biography.” I wrote an analytical political biography that was as much the story of Japanese politics over the course of his career as it was his story. Readers of The Iconoclast will know that it is based on primary documents, interviews with some of his associates, contemporary news accounts, and the vast secondary literature in Japanese on Abe, both hagiographic and critical. To be sure, I had hoped to sit down with him towards the end of the drafting process and ask a few burning questions; I had been trying to arrange a trip for the purpose in early 2020, a trip that was of course forestalled by Covid. The point is that I was not Abe’s Boswell. The Iconoclast was born from analysis, not intimacy.
But the fact is that my entire career as an observer of Japanese politics has been bound up with Abe. The birth of the first iteration of this blog was a month after he became prime minister for the first time in September 2006, and the first year of that blog was a verbose and often overwrought account of Abe’s tumultuous first year. I was, to say the least, a critical and in many respects immature observer of his government. (In my defense I was twenty-four, and the blog was mostly first drafts as I thought about what I read and saw while working for an upper house member.) It was during this year that I read Abe’s book –『美しい国へ』(Towards a Beautiful Country) – which I am reasonably certain was the first Japanese-language book I ever read cover to cover.
What struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is how forthright it was. One of the frustrating things about the focus on the influence of Nippon Kaigi is that it was so superfluous. Nippon Kaigi may have needed someone like Abe, but Abe very much did not need Nippon Kaigi. We know what he wanted to do because he told us what he wanted to do and why he wanted to do it. Abe was not conspiring in secret to change Japan. He and his colleagues put forth their vision and went to work through ordinary politics to realize it.
I suppose my psychic link to Abe was cemented when he resigned as prime minister in September 2007. By that point, I was still in Japan but no longer working Asao Keiichirō, basically just blogging and looking for ways to extend my time in the country. I was sitting in my apartment in Kamakura when the news of Abe’s resignation came across the wires. What followed was an epic spasm of blog posts on the resignation and the subsequent LDP election, as well as one of my first bylines in a major publication, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. It was the first time that a major event in Abe’s career resulted in a torrent of work for me.
But Abe faded from view after his hospital stint and exit from office later that month. When he resumed his political activities later I noted them with blog posts, but I never gave much thought to the possibility of a comeback. His downfall in 2007 seemed so total, the LDP itself in such dire straits that I didn’t give Abe much thought. In fact, when I was in Tokyo in 2012 doing graduate research at Todai, I received a notice that the non-profit Aoyama Shachu would be hosting him for a talk at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon in June 2012. I decided to go entirely out of nostalgia for the summer of 2007, not because I anticipated that he would again be the LDP’s leader in September and prime minister in December. I cannot for the life of me remember what he said, which may have something to do with it being late June in Tokyo when electricity-saving setsuden was still very much in effect. Looking back at my email, the invitation says only:
I did manage to get a photo with him, however.
When he did return to the premiership in December 2012, I didn’t give it that much thought. I was planning a wedding, trying (and failing) to finish my Ph.D., and not blogging. It was not until the following spring – after I left graduate school, after I started blogging again – that I became an Abe Shinzō watcher again.
After I was hired by Teneo Intelligence later that year to handle their Japan portfolio, I felt that I had become a full-time Abe watcher. It is perhaps a sign of how outsized his impact was – and how centralized the Japanese government had become – that following the words of Abe and his inner circle were essential to understanding what his government was doing. While it would be years before I would start writing The Iconoclast, the book was born during those first years after Abe’s return to power. At some level, I think my interest emerged from disbelief that a politician who had failed in so dramatic a fashion back in 2007 had somehow not only rebuilt his career but fought his way back to the premiership. The story of his comeback, his identity as the scion of a notorious political family, his provocative agitation for sweeping changes: I increasingly felt that this was a narrative worth setting out at length. At that point, every time I went to Tokyo I would visit Maruzen and Kinokuniya for the latest books about Abe and his government, accumulating an ever-larger pile of reading material about him and his government, and I began reading and jotting down notes.
I had another close encounter with Abe during his historic visit to Washington, DC in April 2015. I had managed to land a ticket to his address before a joint session of Congress – sitting a few rows behind Abe Akie and Ambassador Caroline Kennedy – and I was glad to be in the room for that moment, but I had a more unique encounter during that visit to Washington. An old family friend who escaped from Nazi-dominated Europe via Japan had helped arrange for Abe to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and I was invited to tag along. I didn’t meet him then; I literally just followed along behind his entourage as they were given a private tour by the museum’s director of programs and a special advisor to the museum. The most noteworthy bit of the tour was this:
But for me, I’ll remember this mostly as the time I broke down in tears while trailing Abe through the Holocaust Museum, as it was my first time in the museum after becoming a parent. I took one look at the wall of family photos and started sobbing.
Abe also gave short remarks that anticipated what he would later say in his joint session of Congress.
So why did I decide to write a biography of Abe? Fundamentally, I wrote The Iconoclast for the best and perhaps only reason to write a book: because I thought there was something interesting worth trying to understand. If nothing else, his family history, his personal history, his unlikely comeback — it was a story worth telling. But then there were the puzzles. Why did he talk about his father so much less than his grandfather? What did Yamaguchi (i.e. Choshu) mean to him, given that he was a Tokyo kid through and through? Why was he so insistent on minimizing or denying Imperial Japan’s atrocities even when doing so undermined his other goals and clearly damaged his reputation over the long term? What explained the ideological zeal of Abe the backbencher and the realism that characterized his second administration? Where did Abenomics come from and how did it fit with the rest of his career (and did he actually mean it)? Where did Abe fit in the history of the LDP over the long term but also during his lifetime?
To the extent that people were thinking about these puzzles, I found that all too often that the labels used to describe Abe substituted for a serious effort to grapple with these questions in a nuanced, scholarly fashion. And as his second tenure lengthened, it seemed increasingly important to me that Abe’s life and career be analyzed in detail as part of an assessment of his political legacy.
I freely admit that over the course of writing I came to understand his motivations better and appreciate what he was striving to achieve. In brief, I think Abe was in many respects a nineteenth-century man in the twenty-first century: his admiration for his grandfather, usually explained as his affection for a war criminal, was as much affection for his grandfather’s generation, the last generation born during the Meiji period. At heart, he was a Meiji-ist: just as the architects of the Meiji Restoration and its aftermath wanted to replace the Tokugawa shogunate with a modern state to protect the Japanese people in a dangerous world, he wanted to replace the postwar state that he believed was not up to the challenges of the twenty-first century with a stronger state that would be.
Everything else flows from this fundamental idea. He pursued a stronger state and more top-down, centralized decision-making apparatus that could take the necessary decisions to defend Japan. But in pursuing a stronger state, he was not pursuing authoritarianism but rather trying to shift Japan’s postwar “un-Westminster” democracy into something that functioned along more textbook Westminster lines.While not necessarily anti-democratic, he was impatient — too impatient — with critics who failed to take this fundamental mission seriously. If Kishida is the prime minister who listens, Abe was the prime minister who explains. His answer to every setback was to say that he had to explain more what needed to be done. I think it’s safe to say that he thought democracy was the process of building a majority, but once the government had a majority, it should be able to govern with that majority. This, of course, was a stark contrast with how Japanese democracy for nearly the entirety of the postwar period. And his interest in the state power meant that he was not overly interested in strengthening individual liberties, although I think the impact of his policies on civil liberties can be overstated.
He was not perfect, and certainly not my ideal of a politician. But practically from the moment he arrived in Nagata-chō, he had a transformative impact on Japanese politics and Japan’s place in the world. His was a story worth telling, and I tried to tell it as fairly and honestly as I could.
In the end, the tour of the Holocaust Museum would be the closest I would get to Abe, notwithstanding visits to the Kantei and LDP headquarters to speak with his advisers and officials (and a visit to Abe Akie’s izakaya “Uzu”).
I cannot but feel regret that I will never have the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss the story I told of his life and career. To be sure, I didn’t write the book to win his approval, I wrote the book to tell his story as I saw it. But I can’t help but wonder if he read it and, if so, what he thought of it.
After spending my entire career following his in one form or another, I do feel a sense of loss. And I was certainly curious to see what he would do in this next chapter of his career, how he would complicate Kishida’s life, whether he would wield even more influence as an ex-prime minister. I suppose I am ready to look at the new era of Japanese politics, with new players and new challenges, and new puzzles to explain. But I will always feel a bit nostalgic for the now-departed Age of Abe.
In case you missed it, I wrote four pieces in the immediate aftermath of Abe’s death. Together, they give a good sense of what readers will find in The Iconoclast.
Foreign Policy, “How Shinzo Abe Changed Japan”
New York Times, “The Postwar Japan Shinzo Abe Built”
Washington Post, “Shinzo Abe was the most polarizing Japanese political figure of his time”
Nikkei Asia, “Shinzo Abe’s greatest achievement may turn out to be Fumio Kishida”
To be sure, the Japanese right wing more broadly has not been entirely content to work through ordinary politics, as the arson attack on the home of the mother of leading LDP liberal Kato Kōichi would suggest. See: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2007/06/01/national/kato-home-arson-nets-rightist-eight-year-term.
See also the attempted attack on Foreign Ministry official Tanaka Hitoshi (https://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/12/international/asia/bomb-threat-targets-japanese-official.html), who Abe would later single out for criticism on Facebook after his return to the premiership. See: https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-JRTB-14098.
Of course, Westminster-style parliamentary democracy has been called an elective dictatorship: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elective_dictatorship.
Commentary from the heart. Wonderful report.
The posts are wonderful Toby!