(Fourth of Five Parts)
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in the United States for a summit with President Donald Trump, JAPAN Forward runs a series of articles that provides a closer look at the Japanese leader. Originally published in Japanese in the January 2018 edition of Hanada magazine, the articles were written by Professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister.
Here is an intimate first-hand account of day-to-day life and work in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long since broken the record for overseas travel by a Japanese prime minister. Abenomics may be the centerpiece of his administration, but Prime Minister Abe’s diplomacy is having an equally positive effect around the world.
I have been struck many times by the sights I see when I accompany the Prime Minister on his foreign visits. When he delivered a speech in English to the joint house of the Australian parliament, calling on both nations to work together to bring about a better future, he recalled the visit his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi made to Australia as the first post-war Japanese prime minister.
The then-Australian prime minister, Kishi’s counterpart, told the nation that it would be better to hope than always to remember, precisely at the time hostility toward the Japanese was still deeply entrenched. One can only get humbled by such a courageous act of tolerance, which is what Prime Minister Abe movingly stressed. It was a moment of reassurance that between the Australians and the Japanese reconciliation had long since taken root.
We witnessed a near-identical sight played out even more dramatically by Shinzo Abe when he delivered a 45-minute speech in English to the joint house of the United States Congress on April 29, 2015.
He praised the valor of the Japanese general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, fallen in the battle of Iwo-Jima, while at the same time led the audience, mostly legislators, whose eyes became wet in tears. It was a sight that was almost too good to be believable, which convinced me that the mixed emotions that long persisted between the two countries were just being melted away in warm tears.
Diplomacy at Home
The following year, in 2016, Japan hosted G7 meetings. Prime Minister Abe chose Ise-Shima as the site for the summit meetings. Ise, needless to say, is among the most sacred places for Shintoism. He wanted other leaders to come to visit the shrine, Jingū—something that countries, such as France, that are rigorous in separating church from state could have found difficult to accept. Yet Prime Minister Abe insisted, based on the trust he had built among the G7 leaders, that they visit the place.
Seeing was believing, as Mr. Abe had hoped. The inner court yard of Jingū was surrounded by trees older than hundreds of years. Steps taken by the leaders caused rhythmical sound, due to the pebbles on the ground, that travelled very well in the tranquility of the woods, where freshness filled the air. As time went by they turned somber. It was an experience, special and spiritual, which reflected well on their faces after the visit.
It was a feat none other than Shinzo Abe could have achieved, for in the long, nearly 2,000-year history of the shrine, nothing remotely close to what happened on that day had ever occurred. It is to be doubted if anything akin to that group visit can be repeated down the road.
Esteemed Around the World
One day in 2016, we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Prime Minister Abe met people of Japanese descent, as he always does whenever he is in Latin America, and paid tribute to their tremendous perseverance, with which many of them overcame both racism and poverty, and instead earned the reputation of “Japonês garantido (in Portuguese).”
Upon hearing that part, many, especially those aged among the audience, were apparently moved. I heard them quietly sobbing. Mrs. Akie Abe then started to fill her eyes with tears, and as I witnessed, so did the Prime Minister. Given the distance between Latin America and Japan, only those in office for quite a long time as prime minister could make visits to those nations. Bridging the two sides in warm tears, as it were, is what very few other than Shinzo Abe could do.
Speaking of scenes I witnessed, I also saw, in the United Nations headquarters, a big number of people in a queue, just outside the big room they use for the General Assembly, patiently waiting for Shinzo Abe to come out after finishing his speech delivery. Many looked to be from Africa. Prime Minister Abe is distinguishable in that he has met most of the leaders of African nations as he has twice hosted Conference on African Development in Yokohama as well as in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Surprise at Malta
On May 27, 2017, Prime Minister Abe visited Malta, and wrote the following on his official Facebook page:
“I visited the memorial dedicated to the souls of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Second Special Squadron. During World War I, the Second Special Squadron served as a naval escort fleet, with Malta as its base. Exactly 100 years ago, the destroyer Sakaki was struck by a torpedo, resulting in heavy damage and the loss of many sailors’ lives. The memorial houses both the remains and the ashes of these sailors. Filled with emotion, I prayed for the repose of their souls. I stated that Japan enjoys trust from the international community. Standing before the memorial, I pledged that Japan will continue to carry out its Proactive Contribution to Peace based on the principle of international cooperation.”
During World War I, under the Japan-United Kingdom alliance, Japan sent its naval squadron to the Mediterranean. There were some officers and sailors, as Shinzo Abe mentioned, who sacrificed their lives.
The Japanese Imperial Navy’s contribution was exemplary. Over a period of 18 months, they were at sea in operation 348 times, which amounted to 70% of the total time spent in deployment (18 months). The corresponding ratio for the British Royal Navy, undoubtedly the world’s best, was 60%, while for the French Navy a mere 40+%. The Allied ships protected by Japan’s fleet numbered 788, the number of personnel they escorted amounted to 700,000. Little wonder then, that the Japanese destroyers were called “Guardians of the Mediterranean.”
It is a long lost memory, for since the late Emperor Showa as then HIH Crown Prince visited the tomb place in 1921, not even a single member of the Japanese government has ever visited the island nation and paid homage to the war fallen. Prime Minister Abe chose to break the pattern.
When we arrived at the site, we were greeted by a pleasant surprise. A British naval officer in an impeccable white No. 1 dress, representing the Royal Navy, was awaiting our arrival. When Mr. and Mrs. Shinzo Abe bowed to the grave, the officer gave a well-mannered salute (pictured, right corner).
That day, the 27th of May, happened to be the day when, pre-war, the Japanese would celebrate their Navy Anniversary Day (Japan’s equivalent of Britain’s Trafalgar Day). The coincidence compelled me to think how far we have come thus far. “Those fallen, whose souls have long since been buried here, are now finally being pacified,” I told myself.
(To be continued)
Tomohiko Taniguchi, PhD (national security), is special advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet and a professor at the Keio University Graduate School of System Design and Management, reading international political economy and Japanese diplomacy.
After graduating LL.B. from the University of Tokyo in 1981, he spent 20 years in print journalism before joining the Foreign Ministry in 2005 as Deputy Press Secretary. Until he left the ministry in 2008 he addressed the foreign press and wrote policy speeches. In 2013 he joined the Abe administration as Cabinet Councillor before assuming current posts in 2014. For more than five years now he has worked as Shinzo Abe’s primary foreign policy speech writer (although he does not openly admit it).