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The Shinzo Abe Memoir: A Good Way to Set the Record Straight

The memoir documents the political life of Shinzo Abe, the most consequential Japanese statesman of the twenty-first century and shares new insights.

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Shinzo Abe
He was not yet prime minister but Shinzo Abe was very much in the spotlight as he joined Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at a summit meeting in North Korea. Then deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe (second from left) watches as then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (front right) and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi shake hands in Pyongyang. (© Kyodo.)

Former prime minister Shinzo Abe (1954-2022) was felled by a cowardly assassin on July 8 in the summer of 2022. With Abe's sudden death, the world thought that it had lost the voice of a great statesman forever.

In February of 2023, however, Abe's voice stirred to life again in a book. Titled simply 'Shinzo Abe's Memoirs' (Abe Shinzō kaikoroku) the book was published by Chuokoron Shinsha (February 2023). 

And its sales are extraordinary. The book blew through five printings in its first month, selling out 150,000 copies in its first week on the shelves. Many speculate that Abe’s memoirs could eventually top 1 million copies in sales.

First of three parts

Second part: The Shinzo Abe Memoir: Finding New Reasons to Lead

Third part: Shinzo Abe Memoir: Navigating the Trump Years

The Making of a Memoir

On July 10, 2020, a month after Shinzo Abe stepped down from his second stint as prime minister, three men approached the former prime minister with the idea of working together on his memoirs. They were Goro Hashimoto (special editorial board member, Yomiuri Shimbun), Hiroshi Oyama (vice-chairman of Yomiuri Shimbun editorial committee), and Shigeru Kitamura (president of the Yomiuri International Economic Society and former Executive Secretary to the Prime Minister, Director of Cabinet Intelligence, and Secretary General of the National Security Secretariat (all under Abe)). Abe agreed.

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From October of 2020 to October of 2021, the reporters met with Abe a total of eighteen times. They recorded approximately two hours of interviews each session for a total of thirty-six hours of recollections from Abe's storied political career. By January of 2022, the memoirs were almost done.

However, Abe contacted the reporters and asked them to hold off on publishing the volume. A return to the heights of Japanese politics was, apparently, in the offing. Abe, it seems, wanted to make a clean reentry into the main political arena.

And then he was gunned down in Nara on July 8.

Shinzo Abe
Mourners at the State Funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pay respects to the assassinated leader. (Pool photo)

A Historic Document

Abe's state funeral was held on September 27. Following Buddhist tradition, the three men working on Abe's memoir waited until after the forty-ninth day of Abe's passing to contact his wife, Akie. She readily agreed to the publication of her slain husband's book.

'Shinzo Abe's Memoirs' appeared in February 2023. It is not yet translated, but its content is important. And its sales are extraordinary. It reached the number one spot for nonfiction titles on Amazon Japan, and number one in all books on the popular online bookseller Rakuten.

There have been criticisms of the memoir voiced in public, such as that it is missing important discussions about nuclear weapons as well as about the possibilities of female-line succession within the Imperial Household. 

It is also not clear, given that Abe was killed before the book was released, how much influence others besides the memoirist had on the final version.

However, the memoir, like the life of the man it records, is historic. It documents the political life of the most consequential Japanese statesman of the twenty-first century. And to share some of its insights with many in the English speaking world, JAPAN Forward offers this review.

Shinzo Abe
The Diamond Princess cruise ship is docked and under quarantine in Yokohama.

Tackling 2020 and the Arrival of the Coronavirus

While the rest of the chapters in Abe's memoirs are arranged chronologically, the first chapter is an exception. The book opens with Abe's reflections on the sudden outbreak, in early 2020, of a novel coronavirus, COVID-19 from China.

Readers will remember the Diamond Princess, which docked in Yokohama on February 3 with some 3,700 souls on board. It arrived amid reports of a passenger from Hong Kong having become infected. Readers may also recall the withering criticism to which Abe was subjected during this episode, especially from foreign observers.

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Abe's memoirs paint an entirely different picture of the event. The former prime minister reveals himself as having been proactive in seeking out information from experts. He also worked to balance Japanese and international law with his duty as prime minister. That, as he saw it, was to protect the lives of Japanese people.

On February 5, 2020, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued a request that Diamond Princess passengers not disembark for two weeks. More than seven hundred of those passengers became infected on board the ship.

What foreign media largely ignored (or did not know) was that Japan was in negotiations with other governments whose citizens were on the Diamond Princess. Japan had authorized foreign nationals to disembark if those governments would come and take their citizens home.

However, foreign governments had adopted exactly the same position as Japan. No government wanted the passengers on its country's soil.

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe and Thomas Bach discussed the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in March 2020.

Leadership on COVID and the Olympics

Similar situations occurred within Japan.

The governors of some of Japan's prefectures opposed the national government's attempts to clarify the central government's authority to impose restrictions on citizens during the unfolding pandemic. Abe expressed understanding that governors would be wary of having their authority usurped. But he also said that those governors who criticized the central government did not step up to take on leadership roles that they said the central government should not have.

Abe also spoke about the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. During a March 24 telephone meeting with International Olympic Committee (IOC) chairman Thomas Bach, Japan and the IOC agreed to delay the 2020 Games by one year.

However, it was Abe who took the lead in these negotiations. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, Abe said, refused to clearly state her position on postponing the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Overcoming Mask Shortages

Another revelation from this opening chapter concerns the "Abenomasks" which the Abe administration mailed to every household in Japan. This was fiercely criticized by foreign observers at the time.

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In fact, Abe obtained an agreement to this idea from the CEO of Unicharm, a company which manufactures masks and other health-related products in Japan. The objective was to stabilize supply and demand. At the time, masks were widely sold out at stores in Japan, and online sellers were gouging buyers. Washable cloth masks, Abe reasoned, would further extend the stabilizing effect.

As Abe remembered it, Abenomasks worked. Mask prices returned to normal, and panic buying stopped.

Shinzo Abe
Abduction Victim Family members present Prime Minister Abe their request for return of their abducted family members who remain in North Korea.

The Making of Shinzo Abe the Leader

The path to the first Abe administration began in 2003, according to the second chapter of the memoir. It takes us through Abe's first term in office, and rebirth as a contender for the prime ministership

Shinzo Abe is the scion of one of the most powerful political families in Japan. But he came up through the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ranks thanks largely to the trust placed in him by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (in office April 2001 to September 2006).

Abe was Koizumi's Chief Cabinet Secretary for approximately the last year of Koizumi's administration. He was part of Koizumi's 2002 delegation to the Pyongyang summit. The meetings resulted in the Pyongyang Declaration and Kim Jong Il's admission of North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens. Five of the officially recognized abduction victims were returned to Japan a month later on October 15.

Abe Rises on Interpersonal Skills

Koizumi was a maverick prime minister. He made it his business to dismantle much of the traditional bureaucratic power structures of postwar Japan, for example by privatizing the postal savings network. Abe was tasked with smoothing out opposition to such political bull-in-a-china-shop maneuvering.

The then-young politician also had to ask veteran politicians, such as former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, to step down from elected office. This shift was part of Koizumi's drive to reduce opposition to his privatization policies.

It appears that Abe's considerable interpersonal skills helped Koizumi move his reforms forward. Abe's charm also won him political capital to support his own run for the top office after Koizumi stepped down.

The End of Abe Administration Part One

These interpersonal skills may have also hurt Abe to some degree, however.

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During his first stint as prime minister, in November of 2006, Abe reinstated eleven LDP rebels who had been forced out over opposition to Koizumi's postal savings privatization scheme. Abe says that voters reacted negatively to what appeared to be backtracking on reform.

A series of gaffes and scandals among Abe's cabinet (some of which Abe says were unfairly covered by the media) and a self-acknowledged failure by Abe to pay sufficient attention to economic policy, also contributed to heavy losses for the LDP in the late July 2007 elections.

After the election defeats, Abe was pushed to the exit by former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba (a longtime Abe rival) and former Japan Defense Agency Director General Gen Nakatani.

Abe reflected ruefully that, "In Japan, prime ministers are toppled not by the opposition party, but by resistance from within the ruling party."

Coming next in part 2: The Shinzo Abe Memoir: Finding New Reasons to Lead

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Author: Jason Morgan

Jason Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan

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