Shinzo Abe had died a few years before I met him for the first time. assassination in Nara last Friday, he was strolling with his elderly mother through Yoyogi Park — an oasis of Tokyo greenery just a few minutes’ walk from his home.
Here was a political colossus who had based years of sloganeering and campaigning around the phrase “Beautiful Japan” enjoying two distinct types of beauty. One was the park in the prime of its seasonal glory, with pink blossoms jostling to match the former prime minister’s golf jumper. The other was the civilisational beauty of the stroll itself: a walk taken by the nation’s most recognisable and polarising politician without a shred of visible security but under the extraordinary and intangible protections of what we might call Pax Japonica.
This force field — a shield powered to a great extent by a societal stability established over decades — was breached catastrophically by Abe’s murder last week.
At the time this article was written, the details of the motives and grievances behind the killing were still in flux. It is less likely that Tetsuya Tamamii used his homemade shotgun to blast through the gap between expectations and reality. This was an attack that Japan — at an individual, institutional and collective level — had become unable to imagine. Yamagami turned a hard-earned comfort into complacency in a split second.
Inevitably, the assassination raises the question: Pax JaponicaIt will continue to hold its powerful sway. The short answer is, almost certainly. The security around politicians will be tightened, and the police-to-protester ratio will rise at demonstrations. However, there will still be a strong social tendency to self-control.
One immediate effect, though, has been to recall the country’s more violent pre-Pax past. Even if Abe’s assassination was not (as seems likely) straightforwardly political in nature, dour commentary has drawn comparison with periods where Japanese blood was routinely spilled over politics — notably in the 1960s and 1930s.
It is a logical conclusion that, at most in the political context, modern-day is not possible. Pax JaponicaApathy is a key ingredient in the strength of Japan’s democracy. Politics may have been a reliable emotion-boiler in Japan’s past, runs this argument, but no longer. This is true. This is true, despite Abe’s historic stature, charisma, and stature. However, Abe was shot at an event in more than 350,000-population, where the number of attendees was in the hundreds.
Though voting may change after Friday’s horrors, analysts had previously expected turnout at Sunday’s Upper House elections to be a record low of about 40 per cent. The Liberal Democratic party was in control for most of the past 67 years, with the exception of five. There were no obvious obstacles. Conflating the admirable civic guaranteetors of is the greatest danger. Pax JaponicaWith this attitude, we conclude that the latter is just as important as the former.
But this, intriguingly, is the thrust of an analysis made just days before Abe’s death, and from the mouth of another former prime minister and political giant. During a lecture, Taro Aso, a rightwing blue-blood who served as finance minister during Abe’s eight-year term, told his audience: “A country where you can live without taking an interest in politics is a good one. It’s much worse to be in a country where you cannot live without doing so.”
Aso is a man who has a long history with comments that are often misunderstood as gaffes, but which are actually clear renderings his thought processes. Hitler said once that Hitler was evil, but his motives were good. Let the elderly die in their own time. Japan’s big problem is women who decide not to have children. All are deeply objectionable.
His political apathy line was however accompanied by the uneasy feeling that he may have had a point. This was in a week of British politics that required an It is exhausting humiliation on the national bloodstream, the lauding of Japan’s low-pulse politics seemed almost wise. Almost.
In many ways, Aso’s apathy line is his most pernicious ever: now perhaps even more so as the nation recoils at the tragedy of a murdered leader and doubles down on its appreciation that the days of political agitation and violence are gone. Although no one wants to return to those times, there are dangers in believing that stability can only be achieved by maintaining a low level of interest in politics.
For all the half-heartedness of many of his reforms, Abe’s beautiful Japan was an ideal built on an abhorrence of stagnation and, for better or worse, a genuine belief that the entire electorate needed to be brought, with passion, behind a nation-defining reform of the constitution. His successors should not hope for public disengagement.