Scholar Morris-Suzuki on the rebranding of PM Abe for foreign consumption, contrasted with his “reverse postwar political reforms” goals set out in his manifesto

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On the eve of an election that will only further empower this man, Scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki talks about the media machines to rebrand him as “not a nationalist”.  Hah.  And double hah after reading some actual scholarship on this man.  Read on and grit your teeth as election results come in.  Arudou Debito

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 11, Issue 28, No. 1, July 15, 2013.

The Re-Branding of Abe Nationalism: Global Perspectives

Tessa Morris-Suzuki

In 2010, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) launched a highly successful TV show called The Gruen Transfer. The title refers to the disorienting psychological effects produced on consumers by the architecture of shopping malls, whose dazzle and noise are deliberately designed to mesmerize: on entering, “our eyes glaze over, our jaws slacken… we forget what we came for and become impulse buyers”.The ABC’s Gruen Transfer explored the weird, wonderful and disorienting effects produced by the advertising industry. Its most popular element was a segment called “The Pitch”, in which representatives of two advertising agencies competed to sell the unsellable to the show’s audience – creating gloriously sleek videos to market bottled air, promote the virtues of banning religion, or advocate generous pay raises for politicians.

I have been reminded of The Gruen Transfer in recent months, as sections of the media in Japan, and even internationally, have gone into overdrive to sell an equally challenging message: the message that Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is not a nationalist.This particular pitch has been running for some time. It began with the inception of Abe’s first short-lived prime ministership in 2006, when Japanese Foreign Affairs Deputy Press Secretary Taniguchi Tomohiko devoted considerable energy to persuading a US audience that Abe was “almost the polar opposite” of a nationalist.The right-of-centre Sankei Newspaper took up the challenge with enthusiasm: its Washington correspondent, Komori Yoshihisa, published numerous articles, including an opinion piece in the New York Times, which aimed to refute the “nationalist” tag. Far from being a hawkish nationalist, Komori argued, Abe had “merely been shaped by democracy”, and his real aim was to bring Japan back from the “post-war extreme towards the center”.But these pronouncements had only limited impact on international opinion, and by early 2007 one prominent Japanese marketing consultant was lamenting, in the pages of the Yomiuri newspaper, that the government needed a far more effective foreign media strategy to rescue Abe from the “hawk” and “nationalist” labels.5

The issue has resurfaced with renewed vigor since the advent of the second Abe regime in December 2012. In May 2013, a US Congressional Research Service paper describing Abe as a “strong nationalist” evoked a surprisingly querulous response from pro-government media in Japan, and even from Prime Minister Abe himself. Abe hit back with a statement in parliament, expressing his unhappiness that “the ideas of our country” were being misunderstood by foreigners. He went on to call for measures to “actively collect and spread information so that we will be correctly understood”.6


Abe’s core goal, inherited from Kishi, clearly set out in Towards a Beautiful Country, and echoed in the manifestos of groups like the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership, is to “escape from the postwar regime”: that is, to reverse the political reforms introduced to Japan during the allied occupation. In his view, these reforms undermine Japan’s traditions, which are centred on the figure of the Emperor. What Abe’s nationalist vision means in practice is best understood by examining his party’s far-reaching proposals to rewrite the postwar Japanese constitution. The proposed changes include removing the reference to “respect for the individual” and making it constitutionally impossible for foreign permanent residents to be given national or local voting rights. Freedom of expression and freedom of association would not be protected where these “have the purpose of harming the public interest or public order”. The same formula would be used to limit the right of citizens to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The revised constitution prepared by the Liberal Democratic Party contains no guidelines as to how, and by whom, “public interest” and “public order” would be defined, leaving an alarmingly large loophole for the repression of civic freedoms by the state. A new article would also be added to the constitution to give the state sweeping powers to declare prolonged states of emergency, during which constitutional rights could be suspended.22 With the prospect of an LDP super-majority in parliament for the next two to three years, there is a strong likelihood that the ruling party will push forward with an attempt to carry out these changes: changes so profound that they should probably be described, not as plans for constitutional revision, but rather as plans for a new constitution.

This artwork appeared in an exhibition entitled “the Constitution and Peace” which opened in a public art space in Fukui Prefecture in May. The work consists of several sections of the current constitution written out in attractive calligraphy and coloured ink on Japanese paper. Soon after the exhibition opened, it was removed on the orders of the company which manages the art space for the local government on the grounds that “its political content might offend the feelings of some viewers”.


The current popularity of the Abe administration in no way reflects public enthusiasm for these grand political designs. It is, instead, a response to the government’s economic stimulus package, and to Abe’s skill in making optimistic statements, which convey a sense of leadership to a population weary of political uncertainty and economic malaise. In the end, the Abe government’s performance should and will be judged, not on any political labels, but on the impact that it has on Japanese society and on Japan’s relations with its region and the world. It is possible that Abe may yet choose to focus on the vital tasks of creating a basis for a strong Japanese economic future and improving relations with Japan’s neighbours, rather than pursuing the ideological agendas of anti-liberalism and “escape from the postwar regime”.

In the meanwhile, though, those who care about the future of Japanese society should not allow the dazzle of verbal juggling to induce a political version of the Gruen Transfer. The prime minister’s ideology may be re-branded for the global market, but the old adage remains: buyer beware.

– See full article at:

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and a Japan Focus associate. Her most recent books are Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War, Borderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era and To the Diamond Mountains: A Hundred-Year Journey Through China and Korea.


8 comments on “Scholar Morris-Suzuki on the rebranding of PM Abe for foreign consumption, contrasted with his “reverse postwar political reforms” goals set out in his manifesto

  • Winning Gold at Dressage Doesn't Count says:

    Somebody really did need to call Doak out on what he has been writing about Abe. His book on Japanese nationalism was actually pretty good until it got to the final chapter, which really was a love fest for his good friend (and they are friends), the prime minister. I think TMS does over-egg the pudding when it comes to the notion that there is an effective international campaign to rebrand Abe as a pragmatist rather than a nationalist. There are certainly those who have consistently run with this line, but they’ve been a minority in the foreign media which has usually criticized Abe’s nationalist positions.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    It seems that no sooner is Sick-notes election victory over, that he is indulging his ‘Chairman Margaret Abe, Japan as internationally powerful’ fantasy, by sending ‘warnings’ to the UK government about the UK’s position on EU membership.

    ‘Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has warned that tens of thousands of British jobs at Japanese companies could be at risk if the country pulls out of the European Union.’

    It’s a bit rich to lay into the UK about it’s membership of a trading block (the EU), when Japan is still sitting on the sidelines of TPP discussions!

  • @JDG (#2) That looks like this new Japan can’t wait to go back to those “kimochiii” imperalist times when it felt it had influence and was able to order around other countries from an alleged position of superiority. Make no mistake that if Japan is ever allowed to have nuclear weapons, this kind of shrill demagoguery will be amplified times a hundred.

    Can the world really afford another country where darkest notions such as “genetic superiority” are still not eradicated to have any kind of influence over others? The past decades of economic influence and prosperity have now led to a situation where the citizens of a (still) well-off, technologically advanced country repeatedly elect lunatic and fringe leaders. Even at the risk of this getting labeled as hyperbole again (sorry, Debito), I think Japan is on its way to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world (again).

    I never thought I’d say this but I feel we must be thankful to have a situation now where South Korea and China, two countries who know the real Japan very well, have grown into a position of power that will make it very hard for Japan to repeat its “glorious” history, unless of course, it is allowed to have nuclear weapons.

    As for this election, and Jim’s link, I think there is one good aspect about it – as long as Japan embarrasses itself and stays as dilettante on the international stage as now, it will always be considered the “whacky country far back east” which can neither be trusted or taken seriously.

  • Oh’s not getting any better:

    “..Media doubt Tokyo’s sincerity to mend ties amid anger over remarks by Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso…The People’s Daily rebukes Mr Aso for suggesting that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party learn how the Nazis quietly revised Germany’s constitution under the Weimar Republic…..”Taro Aso’s speech is the most outrageous one to date regarding Japan’s constitutional amendments, and it is bound to trigger a high degree of concern and strong condemnation in the international community,” comments Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, in the People’s Daily….”

    It’s all goes pear shaped for Aso again 🙂

  • And yet more:

    “..China’s foreign ministry Thursday urged the Japanese leader to face up to history and win the trust of the international community with concrete action, in response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to reject criticism of his right-wing image and advocate a revision to Japan’s pacifist constitution….”So call me, if you want, a right-wing militarist,” Abe said….”

    Well, there you have it!

  • Baudrillard says:

    What is so weird about these postmodern times is that there will still be a lot of western apologists who will claim that Japan is still a liberal democracy (well, compared to China it might be)despite Abe now openly saying he is a right wing militarist.

    They will make all manner of excuses for him such as “he was being ironic etc”. I know this, I used to do it in the 80s when I was a fan of Japan and e.g. Mishima, but was confronted with the bipolar paradox of Mishima being 1. a right wing militarist who wanted to expel western influence from Japan and yet 2. courted western recognition while living a rococco western lifestyle in a western house while liking nothing more to eat than Ochazuke.

    Re-branding for a western audience indeed. But then, Japan is a western ally right? So it “must be”a “democracy”, nést pas?

    Is this a return to the “he is a son of a b*tch, but he is OUR son of a b*tch”that so characterized American foreign policy in the 3rd world in the 60s?

    I d say this bipolar dichotomy is the microcosm of the identity crisis Japan and the Japanese are in denial of. But I think most people here knew that already.

  • Baudrillard says:

    This really IS form over substance-“by early 2007 one prominent Japanese marketing consultant was lamenting, in the pages of the Yomiuri newspaper, that the government needed a far more effective foreign media strategy to rescue Abe from the “hawk” and “nationalist” labels.”

    It is all about spin and how Japan is perceived. Never mind Abe is a right wing militarist by his own admission. I do love though, how the almighty American media has in effect damned Abe to the label of being a nationalist.

    He who lives by media branding will die by it.

    But I kind of get the twisted logic here; Japan is allied to America against North Korea and China (lets forget pesky South Korea for a second). Thus relatively speaking, Japan IS a “default democracy”, viewed in such simplistic, black and white cold war terms that Ojisans may cling to and cherish.

    Postmodern definitions of democracy e.g. media independence/ grassroots democracy are far too sophisticated for the sake drenched crowd (to quote Metropolis magazine) who turned out on masse to re elect Ishihara et al.

    Abe and those sympathetic to him in Japan might claim that the definition of a country is one that has independent control over its military and foreign policy (an opinion stated to me by a former CEO of a leading Japanese company)-thus the need to re arm to “take back” Japan.

    Thus Japan is a “democracy”. I suppose Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan all qualify too as these are-on the face of it-American allied states. Hell, even Russia to some extent after Putin’s backhanded invitation to dissident Edward Snowden.

    Except Snowden cannot be a dissident, does not compute, as we all live in a perfect democracy you know, in opposition to the sheer evil that is China/N Korea etc and whoever, so Japan gets a free pass. They have changed in the mere 68 years since WW2, completely different and westernized (sarcasm mine).

  • @Baudrillard (#7)

    It seems that Abe’s highest priority is in fact to get the Japanese military shooting again:

    Says Abe: “Please imagine a situation where a U.S. warship protecting waters around Japan comes under a missile attack when our Aegis ship is nearby,” Mr. Abe told reporters in July. “If we don’t shoot it down despite our capability, the American ship will sink and many young lives will be lost. Can we maintain the alliance under such a circumstance? That’s among the real questions we face.”

    See? He only wants to protect young American lives. I called it a few months ago that the LDP government would use this as their main talking point. The obvious answer (which the US will never give, I fear) would be “We don’t need help from you.”
    Or maybe that’s the exact answer Abe is looking for? Because that would put him in a position where he could say “We only wanted to help but were turned down by impolite, direct speech!”, and use that as a base that “Japan is on its own” and must “do whatever it takes” to get a military capable of fighting China, North and South Korea, Russia, and potentially, the US all at the same time. Which means nukes.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if Japan had a secret nuke program going anyway. In the minds of Abe and his cronies, Japan is superior to all other countries, must pay no other countries any respect (hence no guilt for lying to the world about Fukushima or Democracy, 24/7), and owes nothing to anyone.

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