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Hi Blog. After the Abe Assassination, people have been asking me what I think about it. In short, I think Abe’s historical revisionism is what got him killed. Opening of my latest SNA column 35:
Abe’s Assassination and the Revenge of History
By Debito Arudou, Shingetsu News Agency, July 18, 2022
SNA (Tokyo) — The assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has occasioned a lot of valuable, eye-opening discussions in the media, but few if any have focused upon how Abe’s death could be seen as a form of karmic payback–-what happens when you ignore the lessons of history in the pursuit of raw political power.
The discussions have instead focused on the veneer of Japan’s “safe” society being blown away by a homemade gun; or about how the world’s democracies have been deprived of a Japanese leader comfortable on the international stage (while egregiously overlooking all the damage he did to Japan’s democracy).
A few intrepid journalists (starting with the SNA) have explored the swamp of Abe’s political connections with the “Moonies” religious cult, and how that probably gave motive to the killer.
To me the most absurd debate has been whether Abe’s death was an “assassination” at all –- the Japanese media have uniformly refused to use the corresponding word ansatsu, portraying it as merely a “shooting event” (jugeki jiken).
These important topics have been covered elsewhere by people with more expertise, so this column will take a different tack. It will discuss the role of national narratives in a society, how dishonest national narratives stunt the maturity of societies, and how a willful ignorance of history due to these national narratives circled back to kill Abe.
First, let’s talk about what national narratives are: stories created by governments, education systems, and media that unify people within a nation-state. For example, Japan sees itself as a pure-blooded monoethnic society that can be mobilized under shared collective goals to accomplish political and economic miracles. On the other hand, the United States sees itself as a “melting pot” of immigrants and cultures whose harnessed diversity has made it the richest, most powerful nation in the world. And so on.
Accurate or not, all societies create national narratives as a matter of necessity. They tell us what we as a group believe and share as collective history. Without them, policymakers would have great difficulty getting disparate people to obey social norms and laws, or accept their status as a member of society. When people believe that they share a history, starting with national education from childhood, political “legitimacy” can be entrenched. You really know it has worked when someone “loves” their country so deeply that they’ll die for it.
But there’s a problem endemic to creating a shared history–you have to decide who’s a member of society and who’s not. Narratives that unify also must exclude. You can’t have an “in-group” without the existence of an “out-group” to contrast yourself with. You can’t have “citizens” without also having “foreigners.”
Sooner or later even the most well-intentioned people make mistakes that turn people against each other, privileging some people at the cost of others, disenfranchising and even killing in the name of national integrity.
So from that comes two types of history: a “good” one that is celebrated, and a “bad” one that people generally don’t want to talk about.
Consider a few examples of the latter:
When the European powers of the world were colonizing other lands, they soon discovered they couldn’t extract treasure without exterminating local peoples. Consider Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean.
Or as the United States grew and developed, “Manifest Destiny” wielded an unspeakable impact on Native Americans–and that’s before we mention the horrors of chattel slavery.
Japan too didn’t secure its borders without committing cultural genocide against the Ainu and Ryukyuans. There was also that brief episode in the last century when it decided to “liberate” Asians abroad under the auspices of a racist Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The point is that every country has a dark side, and any honest historical accounting would allow for that.
Unfortunately, most countries would rather see themselves as the “good guys” in their own narrative, and either downplay or ignore the atrocities committed in the name of the nation.
That’s a bad idea for a number of reasons: not only because it produces poor public policy that leaves past injustices and grievances unresolved, but also because it leaves people blind to the more genuine lessons of history.
For example, the American tendency to see the US Civil War as merely a good-spirited contest between North and South economic and cultural needs overlooks the fact that owning people as property was the central cause of the war. And yet, narratives are still circulating in the South that downplay slavery and its impact.
Why do you think there’s so much backlash these days towards Critical Race Theory, which highlights the legacy of unequal racialized treatment still embedded within current legal systems and narratives? It is because many people would rather just pretend these issues are all settled.
Similarly, why do you think there’s so much backlash in Japan to teaching about atrocities like the Unit 731 biological warfare, the Nanjing Massacre, the brutal colonization of Korea and China, or the government-sponsored sexual slavery of the Comfort Women? It is because some would prefer to pretend that it never happened.
This is where Abe comes in–he was deeply committed to historical revisionism, asserting that Japan was a victim (not an aggressor) in the Pacific War, no more guilty of wrongdoing than any other great power. He also wanted to remove many of the “Western” elements (such as civil rights and individual liberties) that had been enshrined in Japan’s “Peace Constitution” to prevent a recurrence of Japan’s past militarism.
For people like Abe, a national narrative depicting Japan as the “bad guys” would force Japanese to feel shame about their country and to “love” it less. That’s the rubric behind his enforced patriotism and revised compulsory education curriculums.
It was an immature approach which forestalls ever coming to terms with and learning from the past.
Some other countries are more mature about it. Germany, for example, has accepted that its inexcusable historical deeds are just that–inexcusable–and contemporary Germans are taught as such.
There’s no denying that Nazi Germany was one of the worst political systems that ever existed. German schoolchildren are rightly taught to “Beware the Beginnings” (Wehret den Anfängen); that is, to be vigilant against something similar ever happening again.
South Africa has done something similar with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada is finally coming to grips with its genocidal Indian Residential School System. And so on. Some societies acknowledge a portion of their dark past and try to move forward on a healthier basis.
On the other hand, societies with dishonest historical narratives wind up stuck in the past, continuously refighting and relitigating old battles. Remember what George Santayana said about people not learning from history? They’re doomed to repeat it.
Was American mob violence against the US Capitol on January 6 something entirely new? In fact, this sort of thing happened in city and state legislatures many times in the past. Have you ever heard of the Meridian Race Riot of 1871, the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874, the South Carolina Race Riots of 1876, and the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898? Probably not, and that’s the point. If you don’t know about them, it’s like they never happened.
These and many other incidents evicted anti-slavery politicians from elected offices in the South, established Jim Crow laws for nearly a century, and created the longstanding ahistorical narratives that pervade some elements of Trumpist politics to this day.
In other words, the Capitol insurrection was in fact a repeat from a historical blueprint..
Likewise, the Abe assassination was, in the longer view of history, not unique. Mark Schreiber recently offered a “guided historical tour” in the Asia Times on the long list of political killings in Tokyo alone, calling it “practically routine” in times that are not so distant from our own.
But such history was so suppressed in favor of “safe Japan” narratives that Abe himself scoffed at the need for additional security around public political events. During a 2015 Diet floor session, Abe officiously dismissed a question from MP Kiyomi Tsujimoto about the possibility of domestic terrorism, sniping that it was an attempt to “denigrate Japan.”
That was one of the historical blind spots that got Abe killed.
Even now the narrative of “safe Japan” is reasserting itself. The Japanese media still won’t accurately portray Abe’s killing as an “assassination.” Yet, as the Japan Times noted, similar political killings are freely portrayed as ansatsu–as long as they happen overseas.
Why? Apparently because, in Japan, assassinations are somehow “historically unexpected.”
Even the excuse that Abe’s killing was not “political” is inaccurate. This was not a random murder. As reported in various media, the killer wanted to retaliate because his family had been financially crippled by the Moonies, and specifically targeted Abe for his connections to them. That sounds political to me. Yet the Japanese media initially tried to suppress Abe’s Moonie connection until SNA and social media commentators broke the story.
Societies that stunt growth with “love-of-country-at-all-costs” narratives do themselves an enormous disservice, and not just because it leads to things like politics through violence.
Japan is still stuck in other hackneyed feedback loops: that it has always been a monoethnic society without actual minorities (it has ethnically cleansed itself numerous times); that it never actually lost the Pacific War (using the term shusen–war’s end–instead of haisen, war defeat) in historical accounts; and that Japan is not responsible for past militarism, much to the aggravation of nearby countries. These are counterproductive to Japan’s present and future.
Ahistoricity also keeps Japan from facing one more essential fact it has known for decades–that it is an aging, stagnating society, facing senescence and insolvency within a generation or two unless it allows immigration. To move forward, it needs to adopt more inclusive narratives.
That means coming to terms with, and teaching, the dark side of its history. The senseless death of Abe, who was the most prominent proponent of head-in-the-sand nationalism in postwar Japan, is a good opportunity for a reevaluation.
Otherwise history will continue to exact its revenge.
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