The widely reported assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has caused a wave of sadness in international public opinion. He also invited to reflect on the legacy of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister? The prevailing opinion, both in Japan and abroad, is that Abe, who served as prime minister twice in the past two decades, first in 2006-2007 and then from 2012 to 2020, has succeeded in bringing his country to a prominent position on the world stage. .
Considered an astute practitioner of diplomacy, Abe was respected in the West for being instrumental in expanding Japan’s role—including its military role—as a more forward-thinking defender of the liberal order. The academic journal Telos, well known for its New Left theoretical leanings, described Abe’s assassination as “an incredible loss for Japan and for the rest of the world”.
However, given the Japanese military’s recent history of brutal attacks and war crimes – beginning in the late 19th century in China and the first half of the 20th century in Korea and China – it There have been mixed reactions to Abe’s assassination and legacy in China and South Korea. In China and South Korea, public reactions to Abe’s horrific murder were heavily marked by the word “but”. As one Chinese commentator remarked, “Without a doubt, Abe, especially during his first term as prime minister, did some things that were good for Sino-Japanese relations…but on the whole he was a far-right anti-China politician.
While faraway foreign leaders rushed to send their condolences as news of Abe’s brutal murder spread, Chinese President Xi Jinping and incumbent South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol reacted relatively slowly. Although the two leaders maintained diplomatic protocols, they took time to convey their condolences and personal sympathies to the injured family. Likewise, while some of Japan’s closest allies and partner nations observed a day when national flags were flown at half-mast to honor the murdered “world statesman”, these reactions were very different in the two of Japan’s closest neighbors.
The lack of respect for the late prime minister was a reflection of the fact that Abe had repeatedly angered Chinese and Koreans with his visits – six in total – to Yasukuni Shrine.
The shrine honors Japanese war dead – including 14 designated war criminals – and the affiliated museum glorifies the actions of the Japanese military during World War II. Visits by right-wing conservative Japanese politicians to the shrine are seen in China and the two Koreas as glorifying Japan’s war of aggression. A visit to Yasukuni Shrine also serves as a reminder to China and the Koreas that Japan continues to be proud of its colonial past.
Abe’s relationship with South Korea
As President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol prepared to send a goodwill delegation to Tokyo in late April, a sign of a potential reversal and departure of outgoing “anti-Japan” government Moon Jae-in, Abe made visit to Yakusuni Shrine. At the time, Abe was not in power but remained the most influential voice in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The Korean government expressed regret over the provocative move and urged “responsible figures in Japan to face up to history” and “show humble and genuine reflection” on history through appropriate actions. .
On three contentious issues to which the Korean people feel most sensitive – Koreans forced into labor by Japan during the war, Korean women forced into sexual slavery as “comfort women” and the categorical and rigid defense of the Japan’s distortion of history in his textbooks – Abe shamelessly downplayed Korean feelings. When he was prime minister, he not only downplayed the extent to which Japan used Koreans as bonded labor, but even suggested that “Japanese colonization helped modernize” the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, throughout his tenure, his government denied that Japan forcibly recruited Korean (and other) comfort women or that they were “sex slaves”.
As a sign of the Korean people’s attachment to this issue, it is important to remember that since 1992 a crowd has gathered once a week in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding that the Tokyo government recognize that the imperial government The Japanese military forced Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II.
China’s relationship with Abe
Abe was hated even more in China than in South Korea. As mentioned, the Abe government’s policy of denying Imperial Japan’s war crimes and refusing to acknowledge the forced recruitment of “comfort women” and the enslavement of hundreds and thousands of Asian men as “labor forced” also caused fury in China, as many Chinese were also victims.
Moreover, due to the centuries-old feud between China and Japan, few Chinese felt deeply saddened by Abe’s murder. Some Chinese social media users even greeted the news of his death with open joy.
However, what was not mentioned in the international press was that some Chinese intellectuals also quoted the Confucian classic “Book of Rites” and asked their fellow citizens to “consider Abe’s death with rationality”. . Furthermore, news of Japan-based Chinese journalist Zeng Ying crying bitterly as she broke the news of Abe’s assassination was widely reported in Chinese media – even though some harshly criticized her for it on Weibo, the largest social network in China, calling it “unpatriotic”. ”
Nevertheless, people in China, in general, do not mourn Abe’s murder, and they justify it for the following reasons. First, as one Chinese commentator pointed out, “the joy of [some] The Chinese in the face of Abe’s death show their true feelings towards Japan.
More specific to Abe personally, he was known to most Chinese as a far-right nationalist with close ties to the remilitarization campaign of the Japanese ruling class. As prime minister, Abe not only did not apologize for Japan’s war of aggression against China, but he also downplayed the significance of the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing (1937-1938), when Japanese soldiers rampaged for more than a month and a half until then. – Chinese capital, killing about 300,000 Chinese.
For many Chinese, however, more than Abe’s defense of Imperial Japan’s military brutalities, his more recent anti-Chinese belligerence was cause for concern. Abe challenged the “One China” policy, working to strengthen ties with Taiwan and suggesting that Japan would be involved in any cross-Strait conflict. He advocated the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan in order to thwart the threat posed by China. He also made every effort to achieve constitutional reform in the Diet, including establishing the legality of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the eventual abolition of Article 9, in order to coordinate more aggressively with US preparations for war against China. Although Abe did not succeed in this last point of his term, the current government is well placed to realize his dream.
To conclude, Seoul now has a newly elected leader willing to set aside past acrimony toward Tokyo and willing to join a Japan-South Korea-US security alliance aimed at containing China. Yet Abe’s strain of historical revisionism could still scuttle this. The South Korean government is unwilling to interfere in the lawsuit brought against Japanese companies by Korean wartime forced laborers, as requested by Japan.
On the other hand, the majority of scholars of Japanese affairs in China believe that Abe’s passing will further reinforce the conservative slant of Japanese politics. Stressing that since his resignation at the end of 2020, Abe has proactively continued his belligerent attitude towards China, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) researcher Lü Yaodong pointed out that “Abe’s visit to Nara [the city near Osaka where he was fatally shot] was to promote the constitutional reform agenda of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
After Abe’s death, some in China may have been silent simply out of cultural etiquette, recalling the ancient saying: “When there’s a funeral in the neighborhood, don’t sing work songs while pounding rice, and do not sing in the alleys”. .” But it’s undeniable that in China and South Korea, Abe’s death has evoked little sympathy or empathy for a leader the world is praising.