Dragon’s ‘sigh of relief’ in Shinzo Abe’s assassination

Former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe addressing an election rally

Photo credit Twitter Shinzo Abe

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By Deepa Kaushik

New Delhi, July 25: Assassination of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while he was giving a speech in the city of Nara led to spontaneous expressions of horror and condolences from around the world. Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, earned particular heartfelt global elegies. Many world leaders led the outpouring of grief and condemnation, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Abe scripted a seismic shift in Japan’s foreign policy from a post-war position of dependence and subordination to the US-led order to a proactive and independent role.

After more than 70 years of passive national outlook, now Japan is pulling free from its self-binding constraints and taking up an activist foreign policy not seen since 1945. When Abe came to power with a surge of conservative nationalist support in the Liberal Democratic Party, he maneuvered Japan’s return to great power politics.

Abe achieved a historic reinterpretation of the Constitution to permit collective self-defence, ended the ban on arms exports and other self-obligatory policies, and vouched for new military capacity.

More broadly, Abe’s geopolitical moves firmly positioned Japan as a key node in the growing coalition to push back against China. Abe was the original brain behind the Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept, both of which are now the centrepiece of the US strategy to counter China.

Abe championed a more assertive foreign policy, declaring in a 2013 speech that “Japan is back”.

His strategic partnership with India, Vietnam and other regional powers such as the EU and UK with upgraded defence capabilities, helped Japan in countering China’s growing influence.

Abe’s popularity was an eyesore for China. This was seen in the Chinese people celebrating his death, while portraying him as a symbol of war crimes denialism.

The initial response came from China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who showed sympathies.

But Chinese leader Xi Jinping had not issued a statement personally on the day.

However, the state-owned news agency Global Times ran a commentary propagating the mass propaganda against Japan.

The reaction from the Chinese social media was in line with the Global Times’ tone, where the video of the attack was widely shared and commented on.

Also, there were many comments that called the attacker a “Hero” and even suggested China should remember the assassination date as a “Historic Day”.

Even people who appeared to mourn Abe’s passing away were targeted, a Japan-based Chinese journalist, who became emotional when giving an interview about the attack was roundly denounced by social media users, with many accusing her of not being “Chinese”. Subsequently, a nightclub in China celebrated the assassination of Abe. Similarly, there were many restaurants, bars, and grocery stores offering free food and free booze all across China to celebrate his death.

Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 – a Shinto shrine honouring Japanese who gave their lives for the country.

At the same time, Chinese officials said, “Abe’s visit to the shrine severely damages the political foundations of China-Japan relations”.

Thus, anti-Japan sentiments run deep in the Chinese society. Many Chinese people support Beijing’s territorial claim over the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, currently administered by Japan.

The Chinese have shared a love-hate relationship with Japan. Japan and China have fought two bitter wars — the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Second in 1934-45, during World War II. It was called the Asian holocaust as millions of civilians were killed.

In recent years, the bilateral relations turned sour over China’s expansive claims for the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

But Japan remains the most favoured tourist country for millions of Chinese.

Initially, Abe pushed forward with a policy to improve ties with China and met President Xi Jinping in 2014 during his visit to Beijing to take part in the APEC summit followed by another in 2019 at the G-20 summit in Osaka in Japan. But later, the Chinese Government repeatedly accused him of distorting history while seeking to remilitarize Japan.

Assassination of Abe is a rare political killing in post-war Japan, prompting recollection of a time when political violence ran rampant in the country.

From a historical standpoint, Japan has been immune to political violence.

Indeed, in the pre-World War II political landscape, it was very common for extremists to attempt to assassinate well-known political figures.

But in modern-day Japan, the country’s relative lack of violent crime, political or otherwise, made the country a safe society in general.

Compared to the US and Europe, security for political or business leaders in Japan has often been less strict, except for special high-profile events. That was partly because of the perception of a lack of threat.

But the nature of the very public attack on Abe could lead to an emergency review of the way Japan guards its officials and a tightening of security at election campaigns or large-scale events.

In the post-world war era, Japan used to be safe enough for politicians to get close to ordinary people to chat or to shake hands.

(Author is a Research Fellow at Public Policy Research Center)

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