Meet Shinzo Abe's revisionist godfather.

Source: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Blame George Kennan for Abe's Bad History

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish policies, historical revisionism, and heavy-handed efforts to manipulate domestic and foreign media have infuriated critics in Japan and its neighborhood. They might want to reserve some of that anger for U.S. super-diplomat George F. Kennan.

During the early years of the U.S. postwar occupation, an ungainly mix of idealistic New Deal reformers and right-wing satraps of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, launched a radical attempt to liberalize Japan's economy and society -- prosecuting war criminals, busting up industrial combines, imposing land reforms and nurturing a labor movement, among other changes. A new constitution largely drafted by U.S. lawyers and civil servants dramatically expanded citizen rights, giving Japanese women what the historian John Dower called “one of the strongest equal-rights provisions in modern constitutional law.” (Dower’s Pulitzer-winning “Embracing Defeat” covers the period brilliantly.) The constitution also formally committed Japan to pacifism under Article 9, in hopes of turning the country into what MacArthur, with typical bombast, called the “Switzerland of the Pacific.”

Kennan, however, saw MacArthur’s reforms as a recipe for strategic disaster. With China torn by civil war, Europe flattened and divided, and the Cold War taking hold, Kennan believed Japan needed to be built into “the cornerstone of a Pacific Security system.” Beginning in 1947-48, he and his allies in Washington engineered a 180-degree turn in U.S. policy. War crimes trials came to an abrupt end, public employees lost the right to strike and the U.S. began to nurture Japan’s businesses and export industries. Not only were conservative pre-war politicians and bureaucrats rehabilitated, but more than 20,000 leftist union members and other workers were fired in what came to be known as the “Red purges.”

One of the bigger beneficiaries of Kennan’s “reverse course” was Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who had co-signed the declaration of war against the U.S. in 1941 and overseen the conscription of hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese laborers as head of the Munitions Ministry. Dower called Kishi “brilliant and unscrupulous”; another historian of the U.S. occupation, Michael Schaller, dubbed him “America’s Favorite War Criminal.” In 1948, after spending three years in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison while being investigated as a Class A war criminal, Kishi was released along with 18 others for lack of evidence.

U.S. money helped Kishi become prime minister in 1957. According to Schaller, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to provide secret campaign funds to Kishi and selected members of his relatively new Liberal Democratic Party. In return, Kishi shepherded a revision to the mutual security treaty between the U.S. and Japan that scrapped some elements unpopular with Japanese but secured the U.S. right to retain its bases in Japan and, in a secret protocol, the right to move nuclear weapons "through" Japan. (Protests over the treaty would go on to force Kishi’s resignation.)

There’s no doubt that the U.S.-Japan security relationship, which Kishi's grandson Abe has now strengthened with newly-revised guidelines, ranks with NATO as one of the greatest U.S. strategic achievements of the postwar period. Yet the other side of the ledger is less frequently tallied (not least the cost to U.S. workers and communities of U.S. policymakers axiomatically putting security before economics when dealing with bilateral trade tensions). As a result of Kennan’s actions, the U.S. short-circuited promising economic and political reforms that could have made Japan a much more vibrant and dynamic society today.

If they’d been allowed to flourish, for instance, Japan’s labor unions might now be stronger advocates for higher wages, helping to break deflation’s grip. The Japanese bureaucracy -- intentionally given great powers to implement the about-face in U.S. policy -- might have less of a stranglehold over all aspects of Japanese life. The equal-opportunity protections for women might have added up to something more than just words on paper, rendering Abe’s much-vaunted “Womenomics” push unnecessary. Ordinary Japanese might even have a much more favorable view of the American temperament than they do today.

The LDP would probably not have been so politically dominant for so long: As late as the mid-1990s, the U.S. was still protecting the party by refusing to declassify documents about the CIA’s cash payments, with the State Department arguing then that “many of the LDP’s present leaders date from the period in question.” Now the entrenched economic interests that have always backed the LDP are blocking much-needed structural reforms that Abe says he wants to institute.

More troublingly, the party -- and Abe’s administration in particular -- is salted with members who seem to believe that advancing Japan’s future requires rewriting its past. Many members of Abe’s cabinet belong to an association championing visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war criminals among its other fallen veterans, and also the Japan Conference, a grouping that seeks to cast doubt on the Nanjing Massacre and wartime accounts of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military. Such revisionism, and Abe’s refusal to repudiate it, embitters relations with China and South Korea, and thus undermines the effectiveness of the enhanced U.S.-Japan military partnership.

That would come as a disappointment to Kennan, a realist who believed in power politics, not national fairy tales. Next to the Marshall Plan, he saw his work in Japan as “the most significant contribution I was ever able to make in government.” Now, with Kennan’s vision of a “Pacific Security system” even closer at hand, Abe’s historical delusions may be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling its promise.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net