Shinzo Abe: The Japanese Premier Who Was Game For Anything — Including Being ‘Mario’

Shinzo Abe: The Japanese Premier Who Was Game For Anything — Including Being ‘Mario’

Shinzo Abe had as many falls as triumphs in life. One thing was certain though: he would always pick himself up and run again. He was never afraid of trying and was always game for anything — including playing Super Mario.

In his record-breaking run as Japan’s prime minister — serving a total of nine years in two terms of office that were in itself five years apart — Abe never achieved his goal of revising Japan’s Constitution to transform his country into what the Japanese call a “normal nation”.

He wasn’t able either to employ its military to back up its national interests like any other.

Nor did he restore Japan’s technological edge and economic prowess to the fearsome levels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Japan was regarded as China is today — as the world’s No. 2 economy that, with organization and cunning and central planning, could soon be No. 1.

But his assassination in the city of Nara on July 8, 2022 — almost two years from his last day of office on Aug. 28, 2020 — was a reminder that he managed, nonetheless, to become perhaps the most transformational politician in Japan’s post-World War II history. This was despite speaking in the maddeningly bland terms that Japanese politicians regard as a survival skill.

Abe will also be remembered by sports fans across the world for one of the most endearing moments on the biggest games stage of them all — the Olympics.

During the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, Abe was shown on giant display screens where he was to accept the handover of the right to host the next Games in Tokyo.

He begins by announcing he won’t make it to Rio in time. Then he suddenly turns into Super Mario, the iconic Nintendo video game character depicting a mustachioed plumber wearing blue overalls and an oversize red cap. Abe — without mustache but with Mario’s unmistakable red cap printed with “TOKYO” instead and holding a red ball — pops up out of a huge green pipe in the Rio stadium that he supposedly used as a shortcut to make it in time from Tokyo.

The crowd went wild, delighted that a prime minister, that too of an extremely conservative country like Japan, would be game for such a gag.

Laughing about it later, Abe said he was coaxed into the whole thing by Tokyo Olympics organizing committee head Yoshiro Mori. “I didn’t like it (at first),” he said. “Is it really OK for a prime minister to dress up like Mario?’

Shinzo Abe appeared as Mario at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony. Picture by: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

The crowd’s reaction assured him he hadn’t committed a faux pas.

“The applause was tremendous, and after that at international conferences world leaders would tell me ‘I saw you dressed as Mario!’”

Abe was largely credited with securing the 2020 Olympics for Japan. He assured IOC members at the time that the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in 2011 from an earthquake and tsunami was “under control”. Due to the global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Games were held a year later.

On the political stage though, Abe continued to have mixed results during his long career.

In the pantheon of current world leaders, he could not match the powers of Presidents Xi Jinping of China or Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; Japan’s humbling recession in the 1990s damaged its ranking as a superpower.

But while Abe failed to resolve long-standing disputes with Russia and China, he edged Japan closer to the United States and most of its Pacific allies (except South Korea, where old animosities ruled).

“What Abe did was transform the national security state in Japan,” said Michael J. Green, a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration who dealt with Abe often. Green’s book “Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo” argues that it was. Abe who helped push the West to counter China’s increasingly aggressive actions in Asia.

Abe also created Japan’s first national security council and reinterpreted — almost by fiat — the constitutional restrictions he could not rewrite, so that for the first time Japan was committed to the “collective defense” of its allies. He spent more on defense than most Japanese politicians thought was wise.

“We didn’t know what we were going to get when Abe came to office with this hard nationalist reputation,” said Richard Samuels, the director of the Center for International Studies at M.I.T. and the author of books on Japan’s military and intelligence capabilities. “What we got was a pragmatic realist who understood the limits of Japan’s power, and who knew it wasn’t going to be able to balance China’s rise on its own. So he designed a new system.”

His influence, scholars say, will likely be more lasting than that of any modern-day Japanese statesman.

Japanese society typically reveres culture, tradition and nation over individuals. Abe’s will to try anything, not be cowed by failure and every ready to pick himself up after a fall endeared him to his people in a way few politicians in Tokyo had.

“He was chosen for the prime ministership because of a sense in Japan that they were being humiliated by China at every turn,” said Green, the former senior official in theBush administration. It was Abe who pressed for the emergence of the Quad, a strategic security coalition of four nations — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — that Biden has now embraced.

Abe was, of course, not above crude political tactics to get his way. He believed Japan had apologized enough for its war crimes, and he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial that honors Japan’s war dead — including war criminals — in 2013.

Abe’s grandfather, who was accused of war crimes before he became prime minister in the late 1950s, is among those commemorated at Yasukuni. Abe’s father was a conservative foreign minister and the minister of international trade and industry, which ran Japan’s industrial policy.

Abe left office partly because of poor health. He had stepped down by the time Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But his influence was still evident as Japan, after 10 weeks of hesitation, declared it would phase out Russian coal and oil imports. Abe pushed further, suggesting that it was time for Japan to establish some kind of nuclear sharing agreement with the United States — breaking his country’s longtime taboo on even discussing the wisdom of possessing an arsenal of its own.

His efforts to loosen the restraints on Japan that date back to its postwar, American-written Constitution reflected a recognition that Japan needed its allies more than ever. But alliances meant that defense commitments went both ways. China loomed larger, North Korea kept lobbing missiles across the Sea of Japan and Abe believed that he needed to preserve his country’s relationship with Washington, even if that meant delivering a gold-plated golf club to Donald Trump at Trump Tower days after he was elected president.

Abe was not killed for his hard-line views, which at moments triggered street protests and peace rallies in Japan, at least according to initial assessments. Nor was his killing a return to the era of “Government by Assassination,” the title that Hugh Byas, the New York Times bureau chief in Tokyo in the 1930s, gave his memoir of an era of turmoil.

Byas recounted the last killing of a current or former Japanese prime minister: Tsuyoshi Inukai was killed in 1932 as part of a plot by Imperial Japanese Navy officers that seemed intended to provoke a war with the United States nine years before Pearl Harbor.

In the postwar era, political assassinations have been rare in Japan: a Socialist leader was murdered in 1960 with a sword, and the mayor of Nagasaki was shot dead in 2007, though that appeared to be over a personal dispute. And the American ambassador to Japan in the 1960s, Edwin O. Reischauer, was stabbed in the thigh by a 19-year-old Japanese man; Reischauer survived and returned to his post as Harvard’s leading scholar of Japanese politics.

Abe’s death also involved a gun — even more rare in Japan, a country where ordinary people, even the super-rich, did not own firearms. So hard it is to find a gun in Japan that the weapon that killed Abe was actually a home-made one.

There was just one death by gun last year in the nation of 125 million people. Abe’s murder was without doubt the first for 2022. President Joe Biden, commenting on the phenomenon, said the killing will have “a profound impact on the psyche of the Japanese people”.

In 2012, as Abe returned to the prime minister’s office, President Barack Obama’s aides worried he was too hawkish, but over time they warmed to him. Obama and Abe traveled to Hiroshima to lay a wreath at the site where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, a politically risky appearance for both men.

When Trump was elected, Abe pivoted. In addition to showing up at Trump Tower with a gold-plated golf club, he traveled to Mar-a-Lago to celebrate the birthday of Melania Trump, the first lady. He sat and tolerated it when Trump threatened to pull back American troops from Japan because the country ran a trade surplus with the United States. Abe smiled benignly through it all, as if he were waiting for a storm to pass.

Abe staked his political future on a trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When Trump rejected it, the prime minister continued to nurture the 2016 agreement, almost ignoring the fact that Washington was missing. Japan ratified it in 2017; the United States never has.

The Japanese leader viewed managing a mercurial American president as just one more part of the job of a lesser but high-tech power, understanding that for all the billions he had added to Japan’s defense budget, he was still highly dependent on Washington.

“We have no choice,” Abe told a reporter stopping in at his office at the prime minister’s residence in 2017, acknowledging that Trump was forever threatening to pull all American troops out of Japan, with little interest in discussing why they were there to begin with.

Abe seemed to know, as Samuels put it, that “both Japan and the United States are in relative decline” and thus must combine their talents and resources.

“This is a relationship that must work,” Abe concluded.

* Adapted

People pray at a makeshift memorial near the scene where the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot while delivering his speech to support the Liberal Democratic Party’s candidate during an election campaign in Nara, Saturday, July 9, 2022. Abe, a divisive arch-conservative and one of his nation’s most powerful and influential figures, has died after being shot during a campaign speech Friday in western Japan, hospital officials said.(Kyodo News via AP)

from the New York Times and Fox News tributes on Abe.

* Banner picture: Abe dressed up as Super Mario appearing at the Maracana stadium during the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, on Aug. 21, 2016.



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