The Ghost at the Abe-Trump Banquet: Nobusuke Kishi

Understandably, a lot of the coverage analyzing the impact of Trump on Japan has emphasized the negative: Trump is a trade-war guy, he wants Japan to pay more for bases, he’d be happy to stand aside as Japan slugged it out in some military encounter with North Korea, he’s pulled the plug on TPP…

Quite a long list.  And Prime Minister Abe hurried to New York to reaffirm the relationship and hopefully mitigate some of the awful things Donald Trump has promised to do to Japan.

Abe’s takeaway from the November 17 meeting with Trump was “as an outcome of today’s discussion I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader with whom I can have great confidence in.”


Ooh baby.

In my most recent piece for Asia Times, And the Winner of the US Election is…Shinzo Abe? I take a contrarian view: that Trumpismo is a long-expected and, in some fundamental ways, welcome development for Japan.

Japan—and Abe—have been preparing for the moment that the United States would kick Japan to the curb since at least 1971-72, when Nixon screwed Japan royally with the Plaza Accord and PRC recognition.

And Abe’s been anticipating that moment, since his stated ambition is to re-establish Japan as a “normal” nation, freed from the shackles of the peace constitution imposed by the United States and one that completely controls its national and global destiny.

Trump’s stated disdain for the structures of the post-war US-Japanese alliance gives Abe the space, indeed the imperative to pursue that dream.

Japan isn’t quite “normal” yet, but via the Cabinet’s reinterpretation of the Peace Constitution and the passage of legislation redefining and enabling collective self defense in 2015, the road to Japanese power projection outside its borders and territorial waters, though winding and narrow, has been blazed.

Well, maybe not too winding and narrow. The very fact that the legislation was a hopeless farrago of amendments (heroic attempt to explain the law here, thanks to the US Naval War College) to existing policies probably created holes big enough for a Komatsu bulldozer to drive through, if the political will exists.

Most of the debate related to “collective self defense” i.e. incrementally enhancing Japan’s ability to join U.S. military operations not directly involved in defense of the Japanese homeland. Though much lusted for by US pivoteers, this revision carefully avoided permitting Japan’s front line military participation in whatever mischief the US cooked up.

However, the “Peace and Security Preservation Legislation” also redefined unilateral Japanese use of force through military action outside its borders “when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” according to a ‘splainer provided by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Enabling unilateral Japanese overseas military operations is the permanent takeaway from constitutional re-interpretation, no matter what the US does or doesn’t do in Asia.

For Abe, there’s a personal element in his struggle to redefine Japan’s military role, thanks to his bloodlines in the right wing Japanese elite, specifically his grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi. There’s some pop-psyche mumbo-jumbo involved, as this fascinating piece on the timing of the votes on the security legislation from Nikkei indicates:

     July 15 [2015; the date the Diet House of Representatives approved Abe’s security bills] was an important date for Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather and a former Japanese prime minister. Fifty-five years ago to the day, Kishi’s cabinet was forced to resign amid mounting public opposition over the renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

There’s more than LDP astrology at work.  Kishi’s experiences are cited by Abe himself as a shaping influence.  Here’s a family snap of the two:


In his autobiography, Abe claims that, despite being only six years old, he remembered the traumatic days of 1960:

Abe, in his book, “Utsukushii Kuni-e” (“Toward a Beautiful Country”), recounts his childhood memory of June 18, 1960, the day before the new security pact was passed. Protesters surrounded the parliament building, and Kishi was trapped inside the prime minister’s official residence. According to Abe’s recollection, Kishi was drinking wine with Eisaku Sato, Kishi’s younger brother who later became a prime minister himself, when he said, “I know I am not wrong. If I am going to be killed over this, so be it.”

Pushing through the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty over massive popular opposition was a transformative moment in Japanese history and for Kishi himself.  It represented a major step in the restoration of the prestige and power of the pre-war conservative elite after it had been broken and discredited by the war and the occupation.

Similar, in fact, that the breakthrough Abe achieved in 2015.

Abe now finds himself in the same circumstances as his grandfather did 65 years ago: pushing his vision of Japanese transformation within the context of an overbearing U.S. presence that is at the same time welcomed and resented.

Fortunately for Abe, though beset with demonstrators inside and outside the Diet, he was not driven to the extremity of calling in the police to literally carry incensed opposition lawmakers out of the chamber, four cops per legislator, as his grandfather did to force through the vote, thereby earning Kishi the profound hatred and contempt of a generation of Japanese leftists as a Showa militarist retread.

Indeed in 1960 the outrage in Japan at the treaty was so great and the demonstrations so massive that Eisenhower’s envoy trying to make it into town from Haneda was trapped in his limo and had to be rescued by a Marine helicopter.


Understandably, Ike’s visit to Japan to celebrate ratification of the treaty was canceled.

Also fortunately for Abe, he also did not have to endure a subsequent assassination attempt by a disgruntled right-winger, as Kishi did.  For historical/morbid interest, here is the archival raw Pathe footage of Kishi being rushed to the hospital as his assailant is detained.  Also bloodsplatter.  Pathe camerapeople were really on the ball:

The parallels between Abe and Kishi–their circumstances, their outlooks, and their challenges–are striking and significant.  Kishi’s special relationship with the United States—and his pivotal role in shaping the Japan-US military partnership—offer other interesting perspectives on the actions of his grandson.

Kishi was more than the postwar shepherd of the LDP’s alliance with the United States. He had been a key cog in the Imperial war machine and became a vital pillar of American policy in Japan after the war.

Kishi averted prosecution as a war criminal because…well, I will outsource this part of the discussion to a lengthy quote from Sterling and Peggy Seagraves’ Gold Warriors.

In 1956…the Eisenhower administration labored long and hard to install Kishi as head of the…Liberal-Democratic Party and as Japan’s new prime minister. This was the same Kishi who had been a member of the hard core ruling clique in Manchuria with General Tojo Hideki…Kishi had also signed Japan’s Declaration of War against America in December 1941…During World War II he was vice minister of munitions and minister of commerce and industry, actively involved in slave labor…Following Japan’s surrender, he was one of the most prominent indicted war criminals…[pg. 122.  Seagraves wrong on a point here: Kishi was accused and detained as a Class A war criminal for “crimes against peace” i.e. plotting war, but never formally indicted]

The Seagraves stipulate that Kishi was sprung from prison thanks to a deal brokered by the Japanese underworld to hand over looted war gold to the U.S. as a massive off-the-books slush fund in return for gentle treatment of Japan’s elite by the occupation. I’m not going to dismiss that allegation. Dig up a copy of Gold Warriors and judge for yourself.

Anyway, Kishi somehow did avoid prosecution and became the core of America’s preferred ruling party in Japan, the LDP. Continuing with the Seagraves’ account (which draws heavily on the writings of Michael Schaller):

For ten years, Kishi was groomed as America’s boy…[The American Council for Japan] worked tirelessly to improve Kishi’s mousy image, tutored him in English, and taught him to love Scotch. To them, Kishi’s was America’s ‘only bet left in Japan’ [Schaller attributes this quote to John Foster Dulles].

Kishi’s key attraction to the U.S. was, of course, his pro-U.S. tilt.  In a piece posted on Chalmers Johnson’s JPRI website, Schaller writes:

Kishi reasserted his loyalty to America’s Cold War strategy, pledging to limit contact with China and, instead, to focus Japanese economic attention on exports to the United States and mutual development of Southeast Asia.

Hmm.  Sounds rather…Abe-esque, doesn’t it?  Pivoty, perhaps?

Finally, after much struggle and expense, Kishi became Prime Minister in 1957. According to the Seagraves, during his term the CIA paid the LDP $10 million a year from the slush fund, known as the M-Fund, to help it secure its political fortunes.

Then, in order to gain Kishi’s support for the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty—the one referred to above, the one that was so unpopular Kishi was eventually forced to resign—the Seagraves allege that the U.S. government transferred control of the M-Fund to Kishi—personally.

The Seagraves, apparently working off an investigative memorandum by Norbert Schlei (long story) allege Richard Nixon, charged with the task of negotiating the new treaty, gave up the fund in return for unspecified assistance in his unsuccessful presidential run in 1960. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that, but in any case, for whatever reason, it appears that the M-Fund a) did exist and b) control over it did pass from the CIA and into the hands of Kishi and the LDP, kicking off a spectacular and perhaps ongoing carnival of corruption at the highest level of Japanese politics.

The Seagraves allege that Kishi helped himself to 10% of the fund, a not inconsiderable $3 billion in 1960s dollars, and established himself as the LDP’s kingmaker for the rest of his life.

Writing in 1991, Schlei further alleged that, thanks primarily to the energetic activities of bag man & subsequent Prime Minister and trafficker in Lockheed peanuts Kakuei Tanaka (who helped himself to $10 billion dollars from the fund, according to Schlei), the M-Fund had grown to $500 billion.

The links between the United States and the LDP–which Abe now, of course, heads–are long, deep, and dark, and designed to survive the vagaries of national elections. Abe is a key custodian of that relationship.

Again, Kishi was rather Abe-esque in ramming through an unpopular security bill that above all else pleased the United States enormously.

As to the geopolitical implications of the 1960 security treaty, it permitted the US a massive and permanent military presence in a state that, along other political axes, was increasingly a “normal” sovereign state i.e. a state that was in danger of wandering off in pursuit of an independent or non-aligned foreign policy. Per Schaller, Uncle Sam was pretty pleased:

During the next 18 months Kishi collaborated closely with Ambassador MacArthur in revising the security treat. The U.S. agreed to scrap many of the most unpopular elements of the 1951 pact in return for the right to retain air, naval, repair, and logistic facilities in Japan–along with a secret protocol preserving the right to move nuclear weapons “through” Japan.  The importance of these bases, and those in Okinawa, became abundantly clear during the Vietnam war.

Given the current rumpus over media “normalization” of Donald Trump, it is interesting to consider how the U.S. press treated a guy who had literally signed a declaration of war against the United States:

In January 1960, Prime Minister Kishi flew to Washington to sign a revised mutual security treaty.  President Eisenhower welcomed him warmly and the America press lavished effusive praise on the visitor, barely mentioning the demonstrations against him and the treaty when he left Tokyo.  Time magazine graced its January 25, 1960 cover with a portrait of a smiling Kishi against a background of humming industry.  The prime minister’s “134 pound body,”, Time noted, “packed pride, power and passion–a perfect embodiment of his country’s amazing resurgence.”  Newsweek trumpeted the arrival of a “Friendly, Savy [sic], Salemsan from Japan.”  The revised treaty, along with the ubiquitous Sony transistor radios shipped to America, Newsweek explained, symbolized the U.S. alliance with the “economic powerhouse of Asia.” 

Here’s that Time cover:


America was on hand to encourage Japanese re-militarization even to levels that were then, and have remained for half a century, politically unattainable.  A fascinating webpage at MIT commemorating Hamaya Hiroshi’s photojournalism of the “Anpo” opposition movement to the Treaty tells us:

[T]he preamble to the treaty voiced the “expectation” that Japan would assume more responsibility for its own defense, meaning in effect that article nine of the constitution would have to be amended or worked around. At the time of the signing, American officials foresaw Japan creating an army of 325,000 to 350,000 within three years. [emphasis added]

For perspective, 50 years later, the JSF still has not gotten there. As of 2015, JSF claimed 247,000 active and 56,000 reserve personnel.

Here’s another family portrait that’s too good to pass up: Kishi in 1957 with his two grandchildren in American rootin’ tootin’ Injun garb he brought back from his trip to Washington.  Shinzo Abe’s on the right.


Abe recapitulated his grandfather’s close ties to the United States, specifically to the yippy-ki-yay neo-con anti-China wing of the Republican Party.  It is little remembered except, I suppose, by me, Dick Cheney, and the Hudson Institute (where Cheney major-domo Scooter Libby still has a sinecure and Abe speaks on occasion) that Abe, in his first, doomed prime ministership,  endorsed Cheney’s strategy of  a “Asia Democratic Security Diamond” (Japan, India, Australia, and the United States) a.k.a. China containment structure at the time it (and Vice President Cheney) were very unpopular inside the Bush White House.

Now, of course, Abe’s Japan is a mainstay of the U.S. pivot to Asia and, as I discuss in my Asia Times article, the keeper of the TPP flame even though it’s been doused for now in the United States and many of the other signatory countries.

It is, however, simplistic to characterize Kishi (or Abe) simply as a collaborator doing America’s bidding in Japan. Understanding, appreciating, and exploiting the undeniable reality of American power after it has crushed his nation doesn’t necessarily imply a repudiation of national dreams, nationalism, or for that matter even anti-American national ideology.

Kishi was a defiant scion of a samurai family and Japanese imperialist who rejected the idea of Japan as a pacifist ward of the United States. In Kishi’s eyes, the 1960 treaty was a blow against American occupation. In his own words:

Under the old security treaty, America was the overwhelmingly dominant party. Since Japan did nothing for its own defense, the US military was essentially occupying the whole of Japan, even though the Allied occupation was officially over. As long as that situation persisted, Japan-US relations could not be said to rest on a rational foundation. That’s why a change was absolutely necessary. 

With this perspective, Kishi’s success in winning control over the M-Fund looks like another step in his quest for Japanese national and military self-determination.

Presumably President Eisenhower needed to be told something to explain the alienation of the M-Fund billions and the official reason, interestingly enough, according to Schlei was the need for Japan to have direct and expeditious access to black funding to evade constitutional restrictions “in case of war”:

[T]he ostensible reason for ceding control of the Fund to Japan was Japan’s need for an emergency source of funds in the event that war should break out.  In such an eventuality, Japan would be especially vulnerable because its constitutional prohibition on military force would severely hamper financial preparation for defense.  In order to make the Fund and even better source of defense funds in time of need, the Japanese negotiatiors agreed that after the Fund was released to Japanese control, they would add substantially to the amount of the Fund.

In other words, it seems that with Japan not ready to revise the constitution as a reciprocal treaty and become a formal full-fledged security partner, Kishi sold the United States on the idea of obtaining control over a huge pile of black money (which he may have regarded as rightfully Japan’s in the first place) so he would be able to develop Japan’s military capabilities “off the books”.

By his lights, then, Kishi was fighting a two-front war against domestic pacifism and American hegemony, and restoring Japanese independence as a nation and, potentially, as a security power in the process.

Abe sees himself as heir to that struggle, according to an article in Japan Times:

Amending the Constitution was Kishi’s long-standing political aim. His grandson, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now views it as his to complete…Kishi believed that early Allied Occupation policy was aimed at snuffing out the patriotism of the Japanese people…Abe appears to bear similar resentment toward the Constitution, although as prime minister he is unlikely to express this publicly.

In this context, it’s good to understand Abe’s core political and personal identity as a historical revisionist, i.e. a member of the robust right-wing contingent in Japanese politics that believes the key precipitating factor in the Pacific War was a US act of aggression, the economic blockade, and that Japan subsequently was unfairly subjected to “victor’s justice” and imposition of the onerous pacifist constitution…and unjust persecution of patriots like his grandfather.

I wrote at length about Japanese historical revisionism concerning World War II over at Japan Focus, particularly in the context of revisionists’ love for Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, who wrote a massive dissent to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal decision—the Tribunal that would have tried and sentenced Kishi if he had not been somehow plucked from Sugamo Prison.

The Pal dissent is a cornerstone of the Abe’s narrative of the injustice meted out to Japan’s leaders, as can be seen from this Telegraph report of the aftermath of the LDP’s victory at the polls in 2012:

“The view of that great war was not formed by the Japanese themselves, but rather by the victorious Allies, and it is by their judgment only that [Japanese] were condemned,” Mr Abe told a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Tuesday. 

In his previous short-lived spell as prime minister, for 12 months from September 2006, Mr Abe said that the 28 Japanese military and political leaders charged with Class-A war crimes are “not war criminals under the laws of Japan.” 

Prime Minister Abe made a pilgrimage to Kolkata in 2007 to meet with Pal’s son and receive two pictures of Pal with Kishi. The photos were taken in 1966, when Pal journeyed to Tokyo to receive Japan’s highest civilian order, ‘The First Order of Sacred Treasure’.


Here’s a picture of Abe’s meeting in Kolkata.


According to The Hindu:

“The people of Japan love Radhabinod Pal [1886-1967] and still hold him in the highest esteem,” Mr. Abe reportedly told the son of the lone member of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East to have found not guilty all those accused in the famous Tokyo War Crimes Trial (1946-48).

In an interesting sidebar concerning the theme of Abe’s apparent fetish with anniversaries that kicked off this piece, there’s this:

“The Prime Minister told me that the new generation in Japan knew little about my father but they might have got to learn of him after a documentary on him shot by a government agency was telecast in that country on August 14,” Mr. Pal said.

“The day of the telecast marked the 62nd anniversary of the Japanese Army deciding that far too many innocent lives had been lost on the two occasions atom bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 [in 1945] to fight on in the Second World War. A day later the Japanese surrendered,” Mr. Pal recalled.

Finally, to understand Abe’s relationship with his American patron, consider this concluding remark by Schaller:

In 1960, as soon as the new treaty became effective, the United States withdrew its support from Kishi–who now seemed like damaged goods.

I would think that Abe has internalized the lessons of how to please the United States through an anti-China tilt and cooperation with the US military.

But he probably also remembers that the United States, though it protected, promoted, and enriched his grandfather, ultimately abandoned him.

When America turns away, Japan has to be ready to stand up.

With the election of Donald Trump, that day has approached with alarming speed. But Abe has devoted his political life to preparing for it.

By Peter Lee
Source: China Matters

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