Japan: Shinzo Abe’s Government Has a Thing About Hitler. It Likes Him.

Reviving imperial glory has always been an Abe obsession. But teaching ‘Mein Kampf’ in the schools? Japan joins the roster of threatened democracies.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

TOKYO—Imagine a world in which the Nazis and Imperial Japan won the second world war—that’s the premise of the critically acclaimed TV series The Man In The High Castle, which is science fiction. But as a matter of fact, the grandson of a war criminal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seems intent on turning that dark fantasy into something more like a reality TV show. The premiere is scheduled for 2020, and he’s drawing on some classics for the scenario: Mein Kampf recently was approved for Japanese classrooms, and the suggestively titled Hitler’s Election Strategy is popular with some members of the Abe Cabinet.

Ominously, Abe announced on May 3 plans to dismantle Japan’s postwar democratic constitution and replace it with one that owes a debt to the Nazis’ revision of the German constitution in the 1930s, and this week his political party will ram through a conspiracy bill that is straight out of Imperial Japan’s darkest days: those two decades from 1925 to 1945 when people who criticized the government or wrote the truth about the war effort simply vanished in the middle of the night and were not seen again. It’s a bill so awful that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote Abe a letter raising concerns that the new law could allow police to trample on civil liberties.

On Monday, the Abe administration responded with a very public and not very polite missive which, when translated with an understanding of the subtleties of Japanese language and culture, amounts to, “Fuck off.” Just like the Nazis of days past, Japan’s rulers don’t deal well with criticism.

Comparing a political party to the Nazis in any form is generally considered the lowest form of political criticism, but it’s no longer possible to resist the comparison in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan. Because he and his Cabinet admire the Nazis—out loud. And this weird reverence for both the Nazis and the World War II military dictatorship that ran Japan have been there from the start.

In the summer of 2013, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, famous for his verbal gaffes declared in a speech to his political supporters, “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?”

Two of Abe’s Cabinet appointees were associated with Japan’s Nazi Party and several of his comrades wrote laudatory blurbs for a book called Hitler’s Election Strategy, published in 1994, and written by a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The book was banned after international criticism.

Comparisons with the Nazis are hard to brush off if your Cabinet members are looking up to them as role models.

Let’s not forget that Abe appointed an unrepentant racist, Eriko Yamatani, associated with the internationally condemned Zaitokukai, to oversee the National Police Agency. Neither the prime minister nor any of his senior Cabinet members openly opposed the discrimination against Japan’s Korean residents. Last month, the Cabinet announced in an approved written response to an opposition party’s question on the usage of Hitler’s Mein Kampf as teaching material in classrooms that it was completely acceptable.

After a public outcry, they made the obligatory comment that “if it were used as a tool to promote racism… that would be inappropriate.”

Initially, criticism erupted all over the country but the mainstream media practiced self-censorship and didn’t touch the issue until the outcry forced their hand as well.

Cabinet ministers this year also announced support for reintroducing the kamikaze-inspiring Imperial Rescript on Education back into the classroom. It was issued originally by the Meiji Era emperor in 1890 and advised citizens that the greatest moral good was to give their life for him or his successors. It was later used as part of the ideology that had Japan send soldiers out to die in airplanes as kamikaze pilots, die in small submarines as human torpedoes, and force Okinawans to commit mass suicide. After the war, the edict was declared null and void by Japan’s parliament in 1948, with a statement that it “clearly undermines basic human rights and calls into question Japan’s international fidelity.” Now, it’s on its way back. Indeed, it has been a good year for those nostalgic for prewar Japanese militarism. Bayonet practice will be making a comeback in education as well.

The administration has demonstrated repeatedly its inclination to be more like the Nazis, at least in certain respects. In fact, sometimes the party manifesto seems like one big throwback to those imperialist days when the superior Yamato race, descendants of the gods, ruled over Asia and used lesser Asian men for slave labor, and the women for pleasuring the soldiers.

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The most imminent threat looming over Japan is the conspiracy law which is expected to pass before the end of this week. The full name of the bill is the awkward “the law regulating preparing for terrorism and other organized crimes” and it is as vague as it sounds. If two or more people take action to prepare for a crime, they will be penalized even if they have not committed a crime. But what is included in the words “preparing” and “other” one wonders? That is for the government to decide, which may give it the latitude to determine that almost any civilian act can be called criminal.

Currently, the law targets 277 crimes, including forging stamps or conspiring to compete in a motor boat race without a license. Of course, even more could be added later with some amendments.

The government argues that this law is necessary since Japan approved the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2013 and therefore the country needs this anti-conspiracy law to comply with the convention.

That’s a smokescreen.

According to the Japan Times, not only has this claim been disputed by the Japan Federal Bar Association, but a relevant UN administrator has stated that, “the convention does not expressly target terrorist groups. Its main function is to fortify efforts to prevent cross-border crimes such as human trafficking, drug dealing and money laundering.”

The administration is parading around the word “terrorism” and the 2020 Olympics as part of a horse and pony show while claiming that it’s all necessary to create the foundations of the “safest country in the world”—one that is heavily controlled, where dissent is stifled, and everyone is under constant surveillance. Sound familiar?

If you think this law won’t be abused, you don’t know Japan. It’s a country where for several years the police routinely raided clubs and arrested the owners for letting customers dance after midnight. Why? Because they revived an archaic law that let them do it.

The conspiracy laws echo unpleasantly the Peace Preservation Laws enacted in 1925 that are said to have been some of the most significant instruments of intellectual and political repression in prewar Japan. They were supposed to be used to fight communism, and the government declared that civilians were not in the cross-hairs, but after their enactment surveillance and arrests of citizens quickly became routine.

Shigeaki Iijima, a constitutional scholar, sounded the alarm over the conspiracy bills months ago. They “may quite possibly violate the three most important principles of our constitution,” he said: “respect for basic human rights, pacifism, and popular sovereignty. It may bring us into the dark ages. It is the modern version of the Peace Preservation Laws.”

However, while the passage of these laws is frightening enough, it’s all just a prelude to the ultimate goal—dismantling postwar Japan’s constitution and reverting back to the prewar version.  

One thing you have to give the Abe administration credit for: They walk the talk. And they telegraph their punches. When Abe said in a speech in 2013 that, “If you want to call me a right-wing militarist, please go ahead…” he probably wasn’t kidding. He’s a lot smarter than the media covering him.

Let’s walk this back a bit.

After the reference to Nazis in 2013, later in the year, Abe’s coalition government pushed into the law the much opposed and condemned State Secret Act. The law allows authorities to jail civil servants who leak state secrets for up to 10 years, while journalists and civilians who reveal a state secret or who persistently ask about a state secret may be jailed up to five years. The government does not have to clarify what information counts as a state secret.

So what we have is the framework for a Kafkaesque future in which innocent civilians are prosecuted for asking questions without knowing they are asking about a state secret and never finding out why they are penalized.

The administration then rammed through the highly controversial Security Bill which allows Japan to engage in warfare overseas. Many speculate that Japan’s steadfastly pacifist Emperor Akihito declared his desire to abdicate in protest. There’s not much question that the emperor takes a highly favorable view of the existing constitution and regrets the atrocities of Japan’s Imperial Army.

In the midst of the uproar about the conspiracy bill being passed on May 3, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s post-war constitution, Prime Minister Abe announced at a meeting sponsored by the powerful right wing Shinto cult, Nippon Kaigi that he would institute a new constitution for Japan by 2020. The backlash was loud and clear.

By now, many people know that the LDP proposed constitution would do more than enable Japan to wage war. Abe revealed in the LDP’s 2012 draft that the glorious new constitution would include an “emergency situation clause.” This will allow the prime minister to declare a state of emergency with the approval of the cabinet if the nation is attacked, or domestic insurgency occurs, or there is a natural disaster. It authorizes the cabinet to issue orders that have the legal authority of national laws but without undergoing deliberations or a vote. The prime minister will also be able to draft a necessary budget, without the usual parliamentary procedures. This was also a tactic used by the Nazi Party after seizing power.

Professor Lawrence Repeta, an expert on Japanese law, says this law is straight out of the Nazi playbook. He notes that by utilizing the emergency decree clause in the Weimar Constitution, following the burning of the Reichstag, “It was declared that anyone plotting or abetting the murder of the president or officials of the government was to be either executed or imprisoned for life, or at least for 15 years. On the contrived basis that the arsonist was a communist, the Communist Party was banned and arrest warrants issued for all of its candidates in the national election. ‘Plotting’ and ‘abetting’ were obviously suspicions very easily manufactured by police and prosecutors.”

Hodo Station, a hard hitting investigative news show, which was lead by veteran anchor Ichiro Furutachi before he was fired for his outspoken criticism of the government last year, was awarded the 2016 Galaxy Award for its in-depth reporting on the parallels between the LPD proposed constitution’s “emergency situation clause” and Article 48 in the Weimar Constitution which promulgated the “emergency decrees.” In the feature, a German constitution specialist warned that the two clauses were essentially the same and considering how the Nazis gained power by taking advantage of this flaw in the constitution, it is clear that there are dangers ahead in modern day Japan with such revisions in the horizon.

Some cynics note that Abe’s sudden bombshell statement about the constitution came right after the Moritomo school scandal in which Abe’s ties to a racist, pre-WW2 ideology-promoting school were exposed. The announcement of a constitutional revision timetable has made the media focus on that issue, momentarily forgetting about the conspiracy law debate as well as the Moritomo scandal.

Let’s give the devil his due—Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party have really learned from the Nazis about how to deal with dissent and use propaganda effectively. First you need to quell the free press so people aren’t aware of what you are doing—and then you do exactly what you want. In 2011, Japan was #11 in the world press freedom rankings. It now ranks at #72.

Hitler had Goebbels. Trump has Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, but Prime Minister Abe has the world’s biggest circulation newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun—and its “emperor,” Tsuneo Watanabe, totally on his side.

In fact, when questioned about his new constitutional reform zeal Abe managed to upset even Japan’s usually docile parliament by refusing to answer and saying, “You should really read the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has excellent coverage of my thoughts as the grand leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.” 

The propaganda machine that Abe and his supporters have in place is well oiled. The LDP even has a paid army of cyber trolls to squash dissent and flood social media with their agenda. Abe has appointed his political allies to run Japan’s once respected public television network, NHK, so that many now call it, “Abe TV.” The Asahi Shimbun reports that he’s been so effective in squashing opposition in his own political party that “silent LDP members cower in fear of ‘Big Brother’ Abe.”

He has everything in place to convince the Japanese people that the “Nippon Kaigi Constitution” should replace Japan’s “peace constitution.”

Japan is heading squarely back to the past. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is close to achieving the dreams of his grandfather, Japan’s Minister of Munitions during the war, who was arrested as a war criminal but never tried. Abe’s grandfather later went on to become prime minister but failed in his lifelong ambition to dissolve Japan’s democratic constitution and restoring Imperial rule. The conspiracy bill passage brings Abe a little closer to that goal. It’s the “software” in the militarist time machine that the LDP has been quietly assembling since regaining power in 2012.

If history repeats itself, that’s especially true in Japan, where the past is constantly being revised so that solid lessons are hard to learn. Maybe that’s just the cycle of the world: a new era of strongmen ruling at the expense of democracy and its values: Abe, Trump, and Putin—call them “The Axis of Elites.”