Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Tokyo Giant: Shinzo Abe (1954-2022)

American liberals cannot understand the greatness of Japan’s longest serving prime minister.

President Obama Meets With Japanese P.M. Shinzo Abe In Hawaii
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam's Kilo Pier on December 27, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

At a campaign stop in the ancient capital of Nara on July 8, former prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated by a deluded nobody for reasons that apparently had nothing to do with politics. (It may have been religiously motivated, though—some reports indicate that the murderer’s mother was a member of the Korea-based Unification Church, which Abe was perceived to support.) The assassin used a homemade pipe gun to shoot Abe twice from behind.

So much, on the one hand, for the samurai spirit. In the old days, Japanese warriors knew exactly whom they were targeting and why. And it’s not exactly high Chushingura style to punk out and hit your man in the back from twenty feet away. No swords, no ritual, no honor.


So much, too, on the other hand, for Western liberals, who since before the Meiji Restoration have proven completely incapable of understanding what is going on inside Japan. Like nothing else I can remember, the death of Abe has exposed the gulf between the United States and its ally, a gulf that will never be closed as long as Washington remains under the sway of liberals.

The fact is, Shinzo Abe was a Tokyo giant who changed the political landscape in Japan and built up pro-democracy partnerships in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. But to hear the Americans tell it, Abe was a fascist and quite possibly heralded the second coming of the Third Reich.

American liberals refused to understand Abe, and they quite frankly didn’t deserve him. The hour is probably too late to bridge the divide that they have created with Japan. Abe was the one man who could do it, but now he is gone and the liberals who lambasted Abe in life are gloating in his death.

For a glimpse into the gap between Washington and Tokyo that Abe was forever trying to close, consider the hit which National Public Radio ran against the former prime minister, virtually while he was still bleeding out on a gurney: a “divisive arch-conservative,” NPR claimed. But was Abe really a “divisive arch-conservative,” as the Washington liberal consensus alleges?

The short answer is no, on both counts.


First: “arch-conservative”? I wish. Had Abe been an American congressman, he would have been firmly on the Democrat side of the aisle, and pretty far to the left of that group on many issues. On the environment, health care, public transportation, and fiscal policy, to name just a few areas, Abe was a big-government leftist. His Abenomics scheme to revitalize the Japanese economy was statism and money-printing cranked up to eleven. The national debt ballooned under Abe, but neither he nor his core team of economic advisors blinked. Many so-called “conservatives” in Japan continue to push the central bank to crank out more and more fiat currency.

Had Abe been an American congressman, he would have been firmly on the Democrat side of the aisle, and pretty far to the left of that group on many issues.

Ditto for globalist boondoggles like SDGs, the United Nations, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Abe, and the ruling party of Japan for almost all the postwar period, the Liberal Democrats over whom Abe presided, were in no way conservative on most of the things that Americans would recognize. Abe almost never mentioned abortion. He had no problem with Japan’s having only slightly more permissive gun laws than North Korea and Singapore. He truly believed in parliamentary democracy as a kind of Platonic ideal, and gave a rousing speech to the American Congress in 2015 that was a love letter to the Washington democratic mythos.

Even on national defense, Abe was basically a Kennedy-style Democrat. In April of this year, I attended a talk in Tokyo held by the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies (JFSS), a policy research organization of which I am a member. Abe, as JFSS’s top advisor, was the keynote speaker. His remarks were heavily colored by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as by the looming invasion of the sovereign nation of Taiwan by the communist government on the mainland. Abe proposed at the talk that Japan beef up its defense spending from 1 percent of GDP to 2 percent. This is as mainstream as it gets. A 2-percent-of-GDP defense budget would put Japan roughly on par with Australia, France, and Taiwan, and still leave it well behind Vietnam, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.

It should be noted that Abe wanted to spend more on defense to defend not just Japan, but also fellow democracies like Taiwan. Someone else gave a speech like that once, if I recall. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge, and more.” So spoke that arch-conservative warmonger John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961.

But Kennedy was a white American liberal. They get away with a lot more than you might think, and have to answer for a lot less.

American professor Jeff Kingston, for example, found it difficult to write a sentence during the Abe years which didn’t connect the Japanese prime minister with “fascism.” Tokyo-based “journalist” Jake Adelstein, whose life story (which may be faked) is the subject of an HBO series, threw Aristotle’s Law of Identity to the winds to insist that Abe Shinzo was “literally Hitler.”

American liberals like Kingston and Adelstein never tired of reminding us that Abe’s maternal grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, had been jailed by the American Occupation for “war crimes” in Manchukuo. What the liberals often leave out is that Kishi then went on to serve as prime minister after the war, brokering the U.S.-Japan alliance that gave Washington an archipelago-wide airfield and left the U.S. military free to carpet-bomb from Pyongyang to Saigon. In my view, Kishi wasn’t guilty of war crimes until he collaborated with the American Empire. At any rate, Abe carried on his grandfather’s legacy of integrating Japan’s geopolitics into Washington’s. And for that bit of muscular democracy-ism, Abe was “literally Hitler.”

Why were white American liberals so touchy about Abe? Because, while Abe cooperated on liberal projects like nation-building and free trade, he refused to accept the manufactured history that whitewashed white American liberal guilt out of East Asia. He bought into the need to defend and expand democracy in Asia, in other words, but he didn’t think that the price for that deal ought to be lying about what really happened in this part of the world in the 1930s and ’40s. Abe’s drive to revise the constitution Washington communists and New Deal liberals imposed on Japan in 1946 was the absolute limit. It was that effrontery which won Abe the most unhinged attacks from today’s Rooseveltians. Abe wanted to work with the Americans, but based on factual history, not the Washington fairy tale.

University of Connecticut professor Alexis Dudden, a seasoned anti-Japanist and Abe-hater, took to the pages of the New Yorker to repeat one of her favorite slurs against the gunned-down prime minister: “Holocaust denialism.” Abe of course never denied the Holocaust. And he apologized repeatedly, as did his predecessors throughout the postwar, for wartime suffering caused by Japan. Dudden even wrote a book about those apologies.

But perhaps Dudden didn’t quite catch what they meant. She has a limited grasp of even basic Japanese, after all. This is a surprisingly common trait among the American Japan “experts.” But it isn’t incidental. The monolinguism of American Japan hands gets to the heart of why the Japan-U.S. alliance is unsustainable. In Dudden’s desperation to paint the dead Japanese leader as a Holocaust denier can be seen the real reason Abe was so hated by the academic left. Abe committed what, to American liberals, is the one unpardonable sin. He refused to let them write his country’s history.

Few Americans will have heard of the War Guilt Information Program. But it is central to the shifting sands of today’s U.S.-Japan alliance. During the American occupation of Japan, communists and liberals in the American military and government waged psychological warfare on the Japanese people. After having firebombed and atom bombed supine cities filled with women, children, and the elderly, Washington was eager to convince Japan, the world, and perhaps itself that there had been no American war crimes during World War II. The War Guilt Information Program was part of the attempt by Washington to rewrite Japanese history to make it seem that only Tokyo had been to blame for the destruction of the war in Asia and the Pacific.

Japanese history textbooks were blotted out line by line with ink. Japanese newspapers were prohibited from mentioning the campaign of rape by American servicemen in Japan. The Occupation released communists from Japanese prisons, and the communists proceeded to do their usual social engineering and brainwashing, with the blessing of the American authorities. Communists took over Japanese schools via the Nikkyoso, the nationwide Japanese teachers’ union, and spent decades convincing Japanese students that Japan was solely responsible for the war. Before there was CRT in Loudoun County, there was WGIP in Kanagawa Prefecture. A civilian employee with the Occupation named Helen Mears saw what was going on and wrote a book, Mirror for Americans: Japan, to tell her fellow Americans about the revisionist campaign. The Occupation censored her—General Douglas MacArthur stopped the book from being translated and published in Japan.

To this day, it remains taboo among white American liberals to say that World War II in Asia may have been anything other than a holy war waged by angelic Washington. And yet, the Americans who authored Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to say nothing of the native genocide that won them Hawaii and the Philippines—were guilty of many crimes themselves. But this is the point. White American liberals will write your history for you.

This is the real legacy of the postwar period, and it is what Abe confronted head-on. He did not deny the past. He faced it squarely. History is not a morality play. It is full of hate and murder, and no one has a patent on either good or evil. Abe did not accept that, for Japan to be a partner for peace in the world, she had to be a silent slave to a falsified legacy. Abe’s tragic mistake was to take liberals at their word when they called for open debate, and he learned from white American liberals like Jeff Kingston and Alexis Dudden, who still exercise the exorbitant MacArthurian privilege of dictating terms to Japan in the language of the Washington conquerors, that white American liberals say what happened (and what happens next), no objections allowed.

How about NPR’s second claim, that Abe was “divisive”? Anyone who has been paying attention to Japanese news in recent years will know that Abe united Japan, and the region, like no other regional political leader in living memory. The Japanese public has rallied around Abe’s calls for revising the imposed constitution, for instance. North Korea’s rocket launches, China’s belligerency, the downfall of Hong Kong (while Washington watched from afar), the imminent communist takedown of Taipei, and the invasion of Ukraine have opened Japanese eyes. The mood has changed. “Heiwa-boke,” the postwar ”peacenik disease” which caused so many Japanese people just to shrug at world events and say, “Well, the Americans will protect us,” has been cured by Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. Joe Biden’s ignominy in Afghanistan was good medicine, too. Abe’s vision has won out.

Last month I gave a talk here (in Japanese!—non-liberal Americans actually have to learn foreign languages) about the Japanese constitution. I said it ought to be torn up and thrown out as the relic of an unjust war and occupation. A lady came up to me in the venue lobby afterwards. She said she’d seen the poster for the talk too late but wanted to ask about my views. I’m a known right-winger in Japan, so I braced for impact. I told her as gently as I could, expecting resistance, that Japan’s constitution endangered the country. She shocked me by saying that she used to be a big supporter of the so-called “peace constitution,” the one I said should be shredded, but now thought that what Abe-san said about constitutional reform made a lot of sense. Wars happen, and countries have to be defended, she continued. Strength, not wishful thinking, brings true peace.

Abe was a uniter. He was a Tokyo giant. And the American left still doesn’t understand. Still they want to portray Abe as a villain. Dudden notes archly in her New Yorker smear, for example, that Abe met often with Vladimir Putin. Yes, Abe did meet with Putin, many times. The Soviets stole Japan’s northern islands in August of 1945 and Abe was trying to get them back. He preferred to do this without causing World War III. Hence all the meeting and talking, which Abe thought was a pretty good alternative to exchanging ballistic missiles. But in the unwell minds of America’s “Japan experts,” this adds up to dark conspiracy.

 Abe was a tireless diplomat precisely because he was a peace-loving realist. And he was a peace-loving realist precisely because he was that rarest of politicians: a patriot.

Likewise with Abe’s frequent meetings with President Trump, which liberals seem to think made Abe a budding dictatorial strongman. Abe met with Trump because Abe thought the U.S.-Japan alliance was the keystone of peace in East Asia and the western Pacific, and Trump happened to be the man in charge of the U.S. at the time. Abe was a tireless diplomat precisely because he was a peace-loving realist. And he was a peace-loving realist precisely because he was that rarest of politicians: a patriot. He would work with anyone if it meant good things for Japan.

And the Japanese people knew it. In the election held this past Sunday, just two days after Abe’s assassination, voters roundly rejected the peace talk of the Communists and other dimwits beloved of the American liberals. Even the Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner which is backed by the pro-China and pacifist Soka Gakkai Buddhist organization, shaded its rhetoric this round in favor of constitutional revision. 

As perhaps the most fitting symbol of the unity Abe brought to Japanese politics, when he died he was wearing a blue ribbon lapel pin which stood for his other lifework: the safe return of Yokota Megumi and the other hostages whom the North Korean government captured in a program of state-sponsored terrorism. In 2002, Abe, then a cabinet-level minister, traveled with then-prime minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro to Pyongyang to secure the release of some of those hostages. Since that time, securing the release of the remaining hostages (North Korea has abducted hundreds of people from Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and possibly the United States) was Abe’s outstanding concern. The blue ribbon, which is worn widely in Japanese society and politics, symbolizes this commitment to human rights. 

It was on the basis of such values that Abe also formed partnerships with other countries. Some of these partnerships transformed geopolitics, for example the Quad, a grouping of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States formed to counter the authoritarian People’s Republic of China. Even South Korea, where North Korean sympathizers have been working to build a rotten culture of anti-Japanism and anti-Americanism since the Korean War, has begun to turn toward the Abe vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” 

The recent elections in South Korea put a conservative government in power after the disastrous Moon Jae In administration. Moon, who was openly pro-North Korea, relied on the old leftist tactic of ginning up hate against Japan. But two runaway bestsellers by South Korean scholars Lee Younghoon, Lee Wooyoun, and other empiricist economic historians showed that the leftist interpretation of history was just plain wrong. Abe was right, in other words. In 2015 Abe signed a landmark agreement with then-South Korean president Park Geun-hye ending governmental disputes over the comfort women issue that has dogged Seoul and Tokyo for decades. The wartime legacy in East Asia is complicated, and good-faith scholars and politicians have been facing up to it. Abe led the way.

By stark contrast, Alexis Dudden’s charge against Abe of “Holocaust denialism” is the dying ember of an old Marxist flame. Outside of hardcore communists in the American academy and among the Japanese and South Korean left, the anti-Japan hate that once acted as Asian unifier has come up empty and short. Abe unified Asia against communism, turning a massive geopolitical table on humanity’s common enemies in Pyongyang and Beijing. 

Like other visionary leaders, Abe left an unfillable hole when he died. Parliamentarian Sanae Takaichi is a heavyweight in the Japanese conservative mold, and she may end up as prime minister someday. I hope sooner rather than later. The current prime minister, Kishida Fumio, has been focusing on “new capitalism” and other nondescript domestic vote-getting schemes. But there is a wildfire spreading in Asia. 

Communist aggression is on the march. There is a reckoning coming over Taiwan, and it is going to be apocalyptic. The next war is going to destroy the “1955 System,” the postwar political order in Japan offering domestic stability predicated on security guarantees by the USA. When Washington bails and Taiwan goes the way of Afghanistan, Japan will realize that it stands alone against Beijing. Even though he was a liberal, I will be among those wishing that Abe-san was around to lead the charge against the communist Chinese. I already do wish it. But I fear—I know—that Japan will never see the equal of the Tokyo giant.