IN SATYAJIT RAY’S SLIM volume of insightful essays titled Our Films, Their Films (1976), the entry on Japanese art and cinema is called ‘Calm Without, Fire Within’. Calm without, fire within could stand as shorthand for much of post-war Japan although that characterisation stretches back through time in its attempt to capture something essential and not altogether elusive about a land whose history, within and without, has been one of the bloodiest in the annals of human civilisation.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s renaissance man, has understood many things but not always how to get them done. In a replay of Renaissance overreach, he found himself caught between the angelic and demonic points-of-no-return without ever making a Faustian bargain. Abe, make no mistake, is one of Japan’s most significant statesmen ever, not merely its longest-serving post-war prime minister. Being a conservative in Japan comes with a baggage the world outside may find repulsive but is defined by the peculiar Japanese sense of hurt—and hurt pride—that cannot even begin to make sense to an outsider if not seen from the inside.
Yet, when Abe leaves after almost eight uninterrupted years in office, we will find it difficult to label him. A ‘pragmatic realist’? A ‘revisionist nationalist’? These labels have circulated for some time. Or, the ‘Womenomics’ conservative, after the incremental stabilisation and ultimate blunting of the three arrows of Abenomics?
In the beginning, there was that hurt. The national that was also the personal, or the other way round. Abe never got over the fact that his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was called a ‘Class-A war criminal’, perhaps not without justification, by the Chinese and Koreans. He was to be tried as a war crimes suspect, but the expediency of politics and the imperatives of geopolitics made him, instead, the prime minister in 1957. Kishi was a founding member of the behemoth called the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that would monopolise most of Japanese politics after 1955. When Abe became prime minister in 2006 for the first time, and lasted a year and a day in office, the musical chair of premiership in Tokyo was unstoppable. When he returned with an LDP landslide in 2012, it seemed like destiny.
A decade ago, in the offices of a national newspaper where this writer was present, rugby enthusiast and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, one of Abe’s mentors, had said: “The interesting thing about rugby is that the ball is not round. So, when it falls on the ground, you don’t know which direction it will take…it is important to make sure everybody is together, especially when scrums occur…” Mori had lasted 21 more days than Abe’s first term in office but he was instrumental in Japan’s rethinking of the world and its place in it—and about doing something practical with the longstanding friendship with India. Abe’s Japan displayed the outward calm that endeared the nation and its prime minister to many—and the dispute with China and edginess vis-à-vis North Korea only helped. With India, he prioritised the strategic and economic partnership on a war-footing. He pushed the civilian nuclear deal and got along extremely well with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor. The Quad, if it sails the seas again, owes its resurrection in large measure to him. Abe, a tireless pragmatist in foreign policy and consistently emotional about India, will be missed in New Delhi.
Back home, after the last elections, Abe was a weakened figure. The series of campaign finance scandals involving his ministers, the alleged scams he got personally tied up in, the pandemic, the dissipation of the economic energy of his early years, had all brought the ratings of one of Japan’s most popular public figures and his administration down to the low thirties. His insistence on revising textbooks on Japan’s wartime role only stoked the fires within. The non-ideological Japanese electorate, at the end of the day, just wants stability at home.
When the ulcerative colitis made him decide to resign, Abe could look back with the satisfaction and disappointment of a man who tried too many things to make them all come good. Perhaps his worst regret will be the failure to revise the constitution to end Japan’s enforced pacifism. But what cannot be taken away from him is his effort to hold most people together in the scrum.