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Abe Leaves Behind Complex Legacy in Japan’s Neighborhood

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Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

Abe Leaves Behind Complex Legacy in Japan’s Neighborhood

Much of the West is eulogizing the former Japanese prime minister. In China and South Korea, reactions are far less positive.

Abe Leaves Behind Complex Legacy in Japan’s Neighborhood
Credit: Flickr/ Anthony Quintano

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, as widely reported, caused a ripple of sadness in public opinion internationally. It also invited thinking into the legacy of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. The overwhelming opinion both in Japan and internationally is that Abe, who held the prime minister’s office twice in the past two decades, first in 2006-7 and then from 2012 to 2020 – succeeded in bringing his country to a prominent position on the global stage.

Considered an astute practitioner of diplomacy, Abe was respected in the West for playing a seminal role in expanding Japan’s role – including its military role – as a more forward-leaning defender of the liberal order. The academic journal Telos, well known for its New Left theoretical leanings, has 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 in the first half of the 20th century in both Korea and China – there have been mixed reactions to the assassination and Abe’s legacy in China and South Korea. In both China and South Korea, public reactions to Abe’s gruesome killing were heavily marked by the word “but.” As one Chinese commentator noted, “No doubt Abe, especially during his first term as prime minister, did a few things beneficial to China-Japan relations… but overall, he was a far-right, staunch anti-China politician.”

While far-away foreign leaders rushed to send their sympathies as soon as the news of the brutal killing of Abe spread, Chinese President Xi Jinping and incumbent South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol reacted relatively slowly. While the two leaders did maintain diplomatic protocols, they took time in conveying condolences and personal sympathies to the aggrieved family. Similarly, while some of Japan’s closest allies and partner countries observed one day of flying national flags at half-staff to honor the assassinated “global statesman,” those reactions were starkly at variance in Japan’s two closest neighboring countries.

The lack of reverence for the late prime minister was a reflection of Abe’s having repeatedly angered the Chinese and Korean people 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 Japanese military’s actions during World War II. Conservative, right-wing Japanese politicians’ visits to the shrine are perceived in China and the two Koreas as glorifying Japan’s war of aggression. A visit to Yasukuni Shrine also serves the purpose of reminding China and the Koreas that Japan continues to be proud of its colonial past.

Abe’s Relations With South Korea

Just as President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol was preparing to send a goodwill delegation to Tokyo in late April, indicative of a potential turnaround and departure from the outgoing “anti-Japan” Moon Jae-in government, Abe paid a visit to Yakusuni Shrine. At the time, Abe was out of office yet remained the most influential voice in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The Korean government expressed regret over the provocative move and urged “Japan’s responsible figures to face up to history” and “show humble and genuine reflection” on history with appropriate actions.

On three contentious issues the people of Korea feel most sensitive about – Koreans forced into labor by Japan during the war, Korean women coerced into sexual slavery as “comfort women,” and Japan’s adamant, rigid defense of distortion of history in its textbooks – Abe unabashedly downplayed the Korean sentiments. While he was prime minister, he not only downplayed the extent to which Japan used Koreans as enslaved labor, but he even suggested that the “Japanese colonization helped modernize” the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, throughout his tenure, his government denied Japan had forcibly recruited Korean (and other) comfort women or that they were “sex slaves.”

As a sign of how strongly the Korean people feel about this issue, it is important to recall that, since 1992, a crowd has gathered once every week in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding that the government in Tokyo acknowledge that the imperial Japanese military forced Korean women into sexual enslavement during World War II.

China’s Relationship With Abe

Abe was even more disliked in China than in South Korea. As mentioned, the Abe government’s policy of denying Imperial Japan’s war crimes and refusal to acknowledge the forced recruitment of “comfort women” and enslavement of hundreds and thousands of Asian men as “slave labor” caused fury in China as well, as many Chinese were also victims.

Moreover, owing to the century-old feud between China and Japan, few Chinese people felt deeply sad about Abe’s murder. Some Chinese social media users even welcomed the news of his death with open joy.

However, what did not get mentioned in the international press is that some Chinese intellectuals also cited the Confucian classic “Book of Rites” and asked fellow citizens to “view Abe’s death with rationality.” Furthermore, the news of Japan-based Chinese reporter Zeng Ying crying bitterly while breaking the news of Abe’s assassination was widely circulated in the Chinese media – even though some harshly criticized her for it on Weibo, China’s largest social media, calling her “unpatriotic.”

Nevertheless, people in China, in general, are not in mourning over Abe’s killing, and they rationalize it for the following reasons. First, as one Chinese commentator pointed out, “the joy of [some] Chinese toward Abe’s death shows their true feelings about Japan.”

More specific to Abe personally, he was known to most Chinese as a far-right nationalist closely connected with the Japanese ruling class’ remilitarization drive. As prime minister, Abe not only did not apologize for Japan’s war of aggression against China, but he also downplayed the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing (1937-38), when Japanese soldiers rampaged for over a month and a half through the then-Chinese capital city, killing an estimated 300,000 Chinese.

For many Chinese, though, more than Abe’s defense of Imperial Japan’s military brutalities, his more recent anti-China belligerence was a cause for concern. Abe challenged the “One China” policy by working to increase ties with Taiwan and suggesting Japan would become involved in any cross-strait conflict. He advocated introducing U.S. nuclear weapons to Japan in order to thwart the threat posed by China. He also exerted all efforts 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 more aggressively coordinate with U.S. war preparations targeting China. While Abe did not succeed at this last point during his tenure, the current government is well-positioned to achieve his dream.

To conclude, Seoul now has a newly elected leader willing to put aside past acrimony toward Tokyo and keen to join a Japan-South Korea-U.S. security alliance aimed at containing China. Yet Abe’s strain of historical revisionism could still scuttle that. The South Korean government is not willing to interfere in the lawsuit filed against Japanese companies by Korea’s wartime forced laborers, as Japan is demanding.

On the other hand, the majority of Japanese affairs specialists in China believe Abe’s passing away will further strengthen the conservative trend in Japanese politics. Pointing out that since stepping down in late 2020 Abe proactively continued his belligerent attitude toward 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 ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s constitutional revision program.”

After Abe’s death, some in China might have been quiet simply out of cultural etiquette, recalling the ancient saying: “When there is a funeral in the neighborhood, don’t sing work songs when pounding rice, and don’t sing in the alleys.” But there is no denying that in China and South Korea, Abe’s death evoked little sympathy or empathy for a leader the whole world is eulogizing.