Requiem for a Japanese statesman who loved India: Abe Shinzo

Abe Shinzo will be remembered as Asia’s greatest 21st-century statesman. He recognised early that the Indo-Pacific will (re)occupy centre-st...

Abe Shinzo will be remembered as Asia’s greatest 21st-century statesman. He recognised early that the Indo-Pacific will (re)occupy centre-stage as it did throughout most of history, barring a brief Atlanticist interregnum. And then he did something about it, by proposing the Quad and the “free and open Indo-Pacific”. He realised that China would revert to imperialism, and would have to be contained.

Abe San understood that America would withdraw into its comfort zone (“Fortress America”) as its economic and military dominance diminished. It was up to Asians to defend themselves, and not depend on cross-Pacific partnerships. This may have driven his nationalist sentiments. Japan, with its proud history, could not forever be anybody’s junior partner. It would have to assert itself, and it could no longer be hobbled by the pacifist Article 9 imposed by the US, that prevented it from arming itself.

All of this has come to pass, more or less. After Barack Obama’s content-free “pivot to Asia”, Joe Biden’s obsessions with Russia, Ukraine and AUKUS, and China’s consistent sabre-rattling along its entire periphery, it is evident that the old “liberal, rules-based international order” with its Euro-American bias can no longer protect Asia’s democracies. A muscular Quad or even an ‘Asian NATO’ is necessary.

This is critical for India’s very survival, and Abe helped turn around Japan’s official attitude towards India. Even his grandfather, former prime minister Kishi Nobusuke, had been positive towards India, but Abe San turned out to be a true friend. Under him, relations bloomed; and from a stance of anger at India’s Pokhran blasts, Japan has now become India’s most, and in fact only, trusted partner.

This endeared Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe San, to many Indians. He believed in India, and it showed. So much so that some of us are in personal mourning. India has lost its best friend, and in a world where it has no friends, that is a tremendous loss: even after he resigned the rime ministerial position on health grounds, Abe San continued to generate goodwill for Indo-Japanese partnerships. The last time the death of a foreign leader affected Indians so much was when John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1962.

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Prime Minister Modi put it well in a personal note, “My friend, Abe-san”. He also declared a day of national mourning.

Among his greatest gifts to us and his most enduring legacy, and one for which the world will always be indebted, is his foresight in recognising the changing tides and gathering storm of our time and his leadership in responding to it. Long before others, he, in his seminal speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007, laid the ground for the emergence of the Indo Pacific region as a contemporary political, strategic and economic reality - a region that will also shape the world in this century.

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There is a starkly different, and possibly grossly unfair, characterisation of Abe San in the US media, as some kind of ultra-nationalist. The Left-leaning NPR was positively churlish. But then this goes back to the Manichean/Abrahamic “with us or against us” dualism put about by US sources. They portray Japan as being particularly wicked, with Pearl Harbor as Original Sin, and the “Yellow Peril” as being particularly dangerous, deserving of the ultimate horror of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Remarkably enough, this was along the same lines as the vitriol from China.

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I can understand China being extraordinarily mean. That’s just par for the course. But an American outlet saying this is a little surprising, that too a public-sector, publicly-funded, non-commercial entity. Are there wheels within wheels?

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But wait, here’s more:

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Growing up in India, I too was subject to this negative barrage, but I had the advantage of reading Malayalam translations of Tanizaki, Kawabata and Lady Murasaki in my teenage days. I understood Japan as a unique but dharmic civilisation with integrity and codes of honour. Later, I read about Subhas Chandra Bose’s perspective on imperial Japan, and its support for the Indian National Army. Many years later, I went to Nair San’s Indian restaurant on the Ginza in Tokyo: he had been Rash Behari Bose’s interpreter.

The dichotomy of reactions persists. The Western-Chinese narrative against Japan was one of convenience; on the one hand, the Chinese realised that they just needed to shout “Rape of Nanjing”, and the Japanese would give them money to shut them up. On the other hand, the famous “liberal rules-based international order” (see my deconstruction thereof) consistently tried to keep Japan down as a low-caste vassal even when it was the world’s second largest economy.

There was an enormous fuss about the fact that Abe San visited the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan’s war dead. I could never quite understand this. Every country is entitled to remember its warriors, and most do, with gratitude. Why is it that Japan, alone, was prohibited from doing so? In 2019, I visited the shrine myself. It is a stately, mournful, quiet place of introspection. It has a magnificent torii, a museum, and a shrine. It is pure gaslighting to claim this place is somehow loathsome.

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And it has a memorial to Justice Radhabinod Pal, the Indian jurist who was part of the War Crimes Tribunal post World War II. He was the only dissenting voice in what he more or less said was a kangaroo court. Its intention, from the victors’ point of view, was to extract revenge rather than to arrive at the truth about the war. If some Japanese military men were deemed war criminals, were William Calley of My Lai and Henry Kissinger who ordered the carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia any less?

It was an honour for me to stand before Justice Pal’s memorial.

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Many older Japanese are grateful to Justice Pal for what he did then; Abe San, though he was born a few years after the trials, may have heard from his grandfather Kishi San about it.

There are several other connections to India. I used to visit Japan frequently on business in the 1990s, and I found a number of links old and new. Kabuki, for example, is rather similar to Kathakali in concept. Sanskrit is still chanted in Japan’s Buddhist temples, and they write it in the Siddham script that is extinct in India, but seen in temples in Japan.

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I found actual Devanagari written on the Peace Bell in Hiroshima: It is one of the suktas that constitute prayers for the dead.

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In Nara, where Abe San was assassinated, there is the famous great bronze Buddha in the Todaiji temple. In the adjacent, where a lot of tame deer roam, there is also a reproduction of the Ashoka Stambha, the Lion Capital of Sarnath, the symbol of the sovereign republic of Bharat/India.

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The links between India and Japan go back a long way, at least to Daruma, or Bodhi Dharma, the preceptor of the Zen school of Buddhism, who took kalari payat and Buddhist philosophy to the Shaolin monastery in China, around 500 CE. He was reputedly a Pallava prince, who embarked from Muziris or Kodungallur in Kerala. There is the famous Zen koan, “Why did Bodhi Dharma go east?”.

Is that why Abe San came west to India? To repay an old debt?

Moksham praptirastu, Abe San. You were a good man. We miss you.

The writer has been a conservative columnist for over 25 years. His academic interest is innovation. Views expressed are personal.

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