Abe as oligarch?

Political Japan’s long holiday is winding down, with the regular session of the Diet due to begin next week, and both the LDP and the DPJ are preparing for the session and the run-up to the July elections with conventions this week.

At the LDP’s convention, Abe surprised no one by declaring that he intends to make constitutional revision the central issue of the election. In the TV coverage of the convention that I watched yesterday, though, Abe looked bored in the midst of the pageantry. Who could blame him, after a week spent playing the statesman in Europe and the Philippines?

After watching his performances in Brussels, London, Berlin, Paris, and Cebu, I was led to consider the prime minister’s peculiarities. I think many observers have made a mistake in pegging him as a doctrinaire conservative. In his first months as premier, Abe has shown that he is anything but doctrinaire. I think it is for that reason that he has been surprisingly adept at diplomacy, particularly in Asia; he is above all a pragmatist, which means that he is more interested in ends than in means, in this case the end of a Japan with more power and influence. As such, why shouldn’t Abe seek reconciliation with China and South Korea, if it yields substantial benefits for Japan?

Thinking about Abe’s pragmatism, then, I was led to think about a group of leaders, many of them from Choshu (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) like Abe: namely, the Meiji genro, the oligarchic group of elder statesman who guided Japan during the Meiji period. They were the consummate pragmatists, more concerned with the goal of a Japan that was independent, secure, and capable of wielding influence in the region than the particular goals by which to achieve that goal. Accordingly, this profile of Abe by the FT’s David Pilling, written just before the LDP’s presidential election in September, seems especially apt. Pilling wrote:

Although Abe was born and educated in Tokyo, his political blood courses through Yamaguchi, a prefecture on the far western tip of Japan’s main island. Abe’s father built his political career there. When he died in 1991, Abe inherited the devotion of his Shimonoseki constituency, which returns him with massive majorities.

Yamaguchi sits at the heart of what was once Choshu, one of four fiefdoms that rose up in 1867 against the 250-year-old feudal rein imposed by the Tokugawa clan. The overthrow of the last Tokugawa shogun – who kept rule over his closed, samurai-policed nation from Tokyo – ended 250 years of Japanese isolation and launched it on the path of modern industrialisation. The rebels rallied in the name of the emperor of the period, Meiji, so this revolution is known as the Meiji restoration. It restored the Japanese emperor to a position of importance after centuries as an isolated and purely symbolic figure under various shogunates.

The catalyst for their rebellion had been the arrival off the Japanese coast in 1853 of the heavily armed “Black Ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry. The American commander was a gun-boat diplomat whose show of force was supposed to persuade Japan to open up, much like other Asian nations had done, to free trade and the hated “unequal treaties”. The Tokugawa period had placed severe restrictions on contact with foreigners, thus hampering Japan’s ability to learn new technology, including the art of war. The Meiji leaders, notably those of Choshu, decided that Japan needed to open up and transform its society if the country was not to fall into the grasping hands of foreign barbarians. Their working thesis was to know thy enemy.

“Abe has the tradition of Choshu behind him,” says Okazaki. “He is concerned about the state, not just about the prefecture. Choshu people think in terms of Japan’s national interest.”

Accordingly, Abe’s diplomatic deftness and his apparent lack of interest — and ineptness — in communicating with the Japanese public, in other words the duties of a leader in a modern democracy, are not altogether surprising, given his origins in the region that was the heartland of Japan’s modernization. I think he not so secretly wishes he could govern Japan much as his Meiji antecedents did; with a sense of noblesse oblige, and the confidence that they, and they alone knew what Japan’s interests were and how to achieve them.

He also shares the Meiji oligarchs’ interest in state building; Abe has made no secret of his desire to undertake a long march through Japan’s institutions. In his first months, he passed the first major reform of the educational system since the Fundamental Law on Education was passed in 1947 and upgraded Japan’s Defense Agency to a full ministry, and he has made no secret that he intends to make 2007 the year in which Japan is put firmly on the road to constitution revision, starting with the passage of a law on national referendums (required for revision) this spring.

So perhaps there is another meaning to Abe’s New Year’s visit to Meiji Shrine, other than that it is not Yasukuni Shrine. While Meiji Shrine simply honors the Meiji emperor and his wife, perhaps Abe was subtly identifying himself with the oligarchs who were the true rulers during the Meiji era, and who were responsible for the policies that constitute the Meiji Restoration, forebears whose feats Abe would no doubt like to emulate as he embarks on a “restoration” of his own.

Admittedly this post is long on questions, short on answers, but I think it provides a way to look at Prime Minister Abe as he resumes his campaign to change Japan’s postwar institutions.

2 thoughts on “Abe as oligarch?

  1. I agree with you on Abe being a pragmatist, that he has ends and he\’s willing to deviate from the established way of things to achieve them, but he still comes across as a horse trader, putting people in positions due to influence. And that\’s coming back to shoot him in the foot when they engage in scandals that embarrass their boss (Honma, Matsuouka, etc). We might not get a chance to see him see his chance to get what he wants.


  2. That\’s the problem, isn\’t it?He can\’t be an epoch-making statesman unless he plays the political game, assuaging allies and the public and such. And it seems that his inability to do what a democratic politician has to do to hold power is going to prevent him from achieving the goals for which he sought power in the first place.


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