People leave flowers at a makeshift altar for the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo, Japan, July 2022 (ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo).

Masuku shite / yurete iru nari / kisha no kyaku (“Mask-covered faces: / travellers aboard a train, / carriages swaying”). One might assume that the author of this haiku had in mind the Covid pandemic. In fact, it was composed in 1935 by the Japanese poet Kyoshi Takahama. Here the Anglo-Japanese word masuku (“mask”) is used as a season word, suggesting wintry temperatures and influenza outbreaks. With the opening of Japan to the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century, the Japanese readily adopted Western medicine. Doctors and public-health officials, spurred on by the expanded knowledge of microscopic pathogens, had begun to encourage the wearing of surgical masks. As in the West, the impetus for their general use was the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. The aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, which damaged the country’s sewage system, also led to widespread masking. The custom endured, both here and in neighboring Asian countries, sometimes becoming a cause for cross-cultural tension with citizens of the very Western countries where masks had first appeared. Then came the Covid crisis, transforming what some considered an exotic “East Asian” proclivity into the “new normal” all over the world.

Ironically, masks have not been mandated in Japan, though everywhere in public one sees notices, phrased in the politest Japanese, gently urging their use: “Thank you for your esteemed cooperation.” As of June, we are being told that we may again show our faces, especially if we are old and prone to heatstroke. So far, however, habit has trumped the new policy: the masks are still on.

As of this writing some 76 percent of Japan’s population has received at least two doses of a Covid vaccine, but vaccination is not compulsory here and, while some are skeptical of the new vaccines, they have not become ideologically polarizing. At our small church in Chiba, east of Tokyo, we are asked to comply with the eligibility requirement for Mass attendance, as determined by the ward (ku) in which we live. Church receptionists ask us to measure our temperatures and to fill in a form with our names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Instead of holy water, there is disinfectant. While karaoke bars are open in the evening, there is no Sunday-morning hymn singing. But, again, it is not the government that determines such policies, but rather the archdiocese.

Japan has often been characterized as a country ruled less by codified laws than by consensus and social harmony. The Sino-Japanese word wa (“peace, harmony”) appears early in the nation’s history as designating Japan. Wa appears in ten imperial-era names, including Shōwa (1926–1989)—“enlightened peace”—and Reiwa (2010–)—“fair and just peace.” Of course, Japan is not without its critics, but one can safely say that it enjoys a reputation for courtesy, cleanliness, and safety. In the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, there was widespread praise of the Japanese people for their stoicism and resilience.

Still, national images are always subject to fluctuation, and at least in the West, historical shifts in the perception of Japan have been particularly dramatic. A much darker view of the country—as a land of ferocious militarists caught up in a death cult—was already fading when I was a boy in the early postwar years. U.S. soldiers returning from Japan showed color slides of Kyoto temples and stately young women in kimonos. Soon Japan was being described as the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, now firmly committed to democracy and staunchly allied with its former enemy, the United States. Growing interest in Japan and Japanese culture, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, led to an exaggerated picture of the nation’s strength. Admiration was mixed with misplaced envy, with “Japan Incorporated” now perceived as a new kind of Imperial Japan, with black-suited businessmen replacing sword-wielding warriors. Teaching Japanese and linguistics in a liberal-arts college in upstate New York for two years in the late 1980s, I met students eager to live in Japan long enough to master the language, obtain MBAs from a prestigious American institution, and thereby make their fortunes. Then in the early 1990s, the economic bubble burst. The rising superpower was now suddenly being described with another cliché—the land of the setting sun.


Japan has often been characterized as a country ruled less by codified laws than by consensus and social harmony.

Shinzō Abe had already served once as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, when a landslide victory brought him and his party back to power in 2012. In strictly personal terms, it was a return to the old order. Abe’s father Shintarō had held several ministerial posts and had come close to becoming prime minister himself. The elder Abe’s father-in-law, Nobusuke Kishi, had been prime minister, as had his father-in-law’s younger brother, Eisaku Satō, who had been the longest consecutively serving prime minister until his record was broken by the younger Abe. Abe began his career in Japan’s House of Representatives, winning a seat that had been held by both his father and grandfather. His prominence grew as he brought renewed attention to an old issue: Japanese citizens forcibly taken to North Korea during the 1970s. The Kim regime, along with Japan’s left-wing and pro-Pyongyang Korean residents, had long indignantly dismissed the widespread claims of abduction, and the response of the Japanese government itself had been half-hearted. In September 2002, Abe, then deputy cabinet secretary, accompanied Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi to Pyongyang for a one-day visit with Kim Jong-il. The North Korean dictator admitted for the first time that Japanese citizens had indeed been abducted. He offered an apology of sorts, while shifting the blame from himself.

Abe has sometimes been characterized in the Western media as a nationalistic reactionary, seeking to whitewash Japan’s militaristic past. In the wake of his death, NPR initially identified him as a “divisive arch-conservative” before changing the description to “ultra-conservative.” Neither label quite fits, since Abe was controversial not for trying to conserve the status quo but for seeking to alter it radically. Perhaps the largest change he wanted to make was to Japan’s U.S.-inspired Constitution, ratified a full three-quarters of a century ago. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution reads as follows:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

  In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

In 1954, Cold War realities led to a bypassing of Article 9 with the formation of Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF), though not without opposition from left-wing and pacifist voices. In 1992, the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations Cooperation Law was passed, enabling the SDF to take part in peacekeeping operations abroad. Supporters of the new law argued that Article 9 forbade only unilateral military action. Until his death, Abe forcefully argued for revision of the Constitution, and particularly of Article 9. Ironically, the opposition to such a revision comes not from the U.S. government, which would like to see Japan become less dependent on American military support, but rather from domestic political players.

But the issue that really made Abe such a contentious figure, both within Japan and abroad, was his alleged revisionism regarding Japan’s militarist era. Though his views were by no means unique, the fact that his paternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was once charged as a Class A war criminal no doubt made him a convenient target.

Japan is often chided for failing to come to terms with its imperialist past. Its critics draw an unfavorable contrast with Germany and its forthright acknowledgement of the crimes committed by the Nazis. Out of context, such a broad comparison is misleading. It’s true that, unlike Germany, Japan does not legally prohibit public expression of nationalist extremism, but those who engage in it—mostly young men driving about in sound trucks, blaring old Imperial Army songs—are loathed and despised as a public nuisance by the vast majority of the Japanese population. Even those not strongly inclined to collective contrition over the wrongs Japan committed against its Asian neighbors are profoundly aware of the devastation that militarism brought to Japan itself. Everyone here understands that war is a terrible thing—especially if one loses. If Germany’s efforts at atonement have been remarkably successful, that fact cannot be solely attributed to its heartfelt expressions of remorse. For their part, the many victims of Nazism have not held its crimes against postwar Germany, the way many of the victims of imperial Japan have held its transgressions against postwar Japan. And while Germany doesn’t need to worry that an anti-German regime in the Democratic People’s Republic of Norway will launch missiles into its North Sea waters, Japan’s SDF must always keep a wary eye on Pyongyang. (A retired U.S. diplomat told me about negotiating some years ago with his North Korean counterpart and asking him at one point where, if he had just one nuclear bomb, he would drop it. His response was immediate: “Tokyo.”) Anti-Japanese propaganda is still taught in South Korean schools. National opinion polls in South Korea invariably put Japan at the top of the list of detested countries, above the United States and China, and even above North Korea.

Abe was controversial not for trying to conserve the status quo but for seeking to alter it radically.

A particular source of strain between the two countries is the so-called “comfort women” (ianfu) issue. While some of the historical facts are still in dispute, the Japanese government has never denied the existence of wartime military brothels staffed by South Korean women forced into service. Japan has repeatedly apologized and paid compensation. In December 2015, the two countries reached what was supposed to be a final resolution of the matter, but the agreement was subsequently declared null and void by the Korean government. Adding to the tension has been the erection of comfort-women statues, one directly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, another in San Franciso, and still another in Berlin. In a botanical garden in the city of Pyongchang in northwest South Korea, a figure clearly intended to represent Shinzō Abe is shown kneeling and bowing before the seated figure of a young girl.


On the morning of July 8, Abe was in Nara delivering a campaign speech when he was mortally wounded by a forty-one-year-old man named Tetsuya Yamagami, who was immediately arrested without resistance. Yamagami has claimed his motive was Abe’s alleged ties to the Unification Church, to which the assassin’s wealthy mother gave so much money that the family’s construction business went bankrupt, leaving Yamagami and other family members destitute.

To many Americans, any Japanese association with Sun Myung Moon, the Korean founder of the Unification Church, must be baffling. For all of its thousands of Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples, Japan is one of the most secular countries in the world. Most Japanese describe themselves as mushūkyō, a term which, while literally meaning “no religion,” might be better translated as “unaffiliated.” The Sino-Japanese word shūkyō (“religion”) is a relatively new coinage and is widely associated not with beliefs but with institutions. The great majority of Japanese would be content with Shintō prayers for good fortune, Buddhist funerals in times of bereavement, and “Christian-style” weddings in chapels of dubious taste, but some are also drawn to one of Japan’s many “new religions” that offer a special sense of identity.

Among these, the Unification Church would hardly seem to be an attractive option. Few Japanese have much understanding of, or interest in, either the Bible or Judeo-Christian theism; and, however bizarre one may regard the twists and turns of Moon theology, it clearly derives from a tradition quite distinct from that of the generally animistic Japanese. Furthermore, this theology is hardly “Japan-friendly.” It teaches that Korea is an “Adam country,” Japan an “Eve country,” Eve having first committed spiritual adultery with Satan and then corrupted Adam. Moon taught that the Japanese must donate lavishly to the Unification Church in order to atone for their collective guilt. Estimates of how many Japanese are or have been Unification Church adherents vary greatly, ranging from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands, but they clearly outnumber followers in both South Korea and the United States. According to Japan’s National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, Japanese contributions to the church over a twenty-year period amounted to some $10 billion.

Shinzō Abe was hardly the only Japanese politician to have loose ties with the Unification Church, but the fact that his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was sympathetic to the cult for its staunch anti-Communism may well have contributed to Yamagami’s ire. Abe’s widow Akie attended elite Catholic schools in Tokyo and received a master’s degree from the Episcopal-affiliated St. Paul’s University, but she is not Christian, and her husband’s private funeral was held at a Buddhist temple belonging to the Pure Land sect. In his second term as prime minister, Abe paid a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the war dead, at the risk of offending not only Japan’s neighbors but also the United States. It seems likely that he was motivated to do this not by any kind of State Shintoist zeal but rather by a deeply felt patriotism. There was no subsequent visit.

Abe is to be honored with a state funeral on September 27. The last such funeral was for Shigeru Yoshida, the illustrious postwar prime minister whose policies greatly contributed to Japan’s economic success. Well known as a pro-American Anglophile and cigar aficionado, Yoshida kept his love for the Catholic faith a secret. He was baptized shortly before his death in 1967. The government of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has announced that Abe’s funeral will be simple and secular.

Charles De Wolf is a linguist and translator of Japanese literature. He is professor emeritus at Keio University, where he continues to teach linguistics and comparative culture.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the October 2022 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.