Abe’s assassination resurfaces a complex legacy in China and South Korea
The protests offer a glimpse into the historic feud between Tokyo and its closest neighbors. Sympathy from foreign leaders surged shortly after former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead on Friday, and some of Japan’s closest international partners announced plans to fly national flags at half-mast in the honor of the murdered statesman. But in China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of the brutality of militarist Japan in the first half of the 20th century, the reaction was more complicated.
When he was prime minister in 2015, right-wing Abe signed a pact with South Korea, in which Japan recognized the “dignity and honor” of women “severely injured in wars”. But during his tenure, Tokyo has at times denied forcibly recruiting the women and has long disputed that they were sex slaves. The controversy over wartime atrocities committed in Japan, as well as Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where some World War II war criminals are honoured, have long strained Japan’s relations with South Korea and the China.
Beijing faces the delicate balancing act of maintaining diplomatic etiquette without alienating Chinese nationalists, whose support President Xi Jinping has long cultivated. In the hours after Abe was shot dead by a gunman during a campaign rally near Osaka, Chinese social media users reacted with an outpouring of joy and jeers. This prompted prominent nationalist figures to urge respect; a falcon commentator shut down an online group and urged followers to be “rationally patriotic”.
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On Saturday – hours after many of his international counterparts had done so – Xi sent China’s condolences to incumbent Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as well as personal sympathy to Abe’s family. Abe had “contributed positively” to improving bilateral relations, he said, in a restrained statement that stands in stark contrast to the mockery that has since been stifled on Chinese social media. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declined to comment on the online contempt.
Abe left a “mixed basket” of legacy, said Victor Gao, a Beijing-based political commentator who served as an interpreter for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Gao praised Abe for taking his first official foreign trip as prime minister to Beijing and for trying to craft a foreign policy more independent of Washington. Despite historical frictions, the two economies are closely linked and Japan is China’s third largest source of foreign investment.
But Abe’s efforts to give the Japanese military a more active role and change its pacifist constitution – which is widely seen as an attempt to stand up to an increasingly assertive Beijing – have tarnished his image in China, he said. said Gao. The former prime minister was also an architect of the Quad, a group of like-minded regional powers including the United States, which acts as a counterweight to China.
“In his later years, particularly after leaving the post of prime minister, he held positions generally considered to be very hawkish,” Gao said.
After leaving office in 2020, Abe has become a particularly outspoken critic of Beijing’s growing aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. He urged Washington to abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan and pledge to defend the self-governing island, which Beijing claims as part of China, in the event of an attack. Abe also reportedly helped orchestrate a transfer of coronavirus vaccine doses from Tokyo to Taipei, at a time when Taiwan was facing a spike in infections.
These efforts have brought Abe closer to Taiwanese political leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen, who said on Saturday that the island was deeply grateful for his “lifetime contribution”. On Friday evening, the Taipei 101 skyscraper lit up in tribute to Abe, with messages of thanks projected onto the monument.
South Korea’s relationship with Abe is even more complex. The late leader played down the extent to which Japan used Koreans as slaves during the war, and he had suggested that decades of Japanese colonial rule had helped modernize the Korean peninsula, drawing bitter denunciations from Seoul and Pyongyang. But Japan and South Korea are bound by the security threat from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear regime. So is Seoul. shares some of Tokyo’s distrust of Beijing.
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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to improve relations with Japan. On Friday, he offered his condolences and sent flowers to Abe’s family, albeit hours after many other Asian leaders. Seoul was also particularly concerned about Abe’s death motivating potential hate crimes against Korean nationals in Japan.
“We didn’t always agree with him on political and diplomatic issues,” said the former South Korean prime minister. Lee Nak-yon, whose tenure overlapped with that of Abe, in a statement late Friday. “But we cultivated a bond of personal trust.”
Ethan Shin, a legal analyst for the Transitional Justice Working Group, a Seoul-based nonprofit that has criticized Japan’s reluctance to properly acknowledge its imperial-era atrocities, called Abe’s assassination a ” brazen act of political terror”.
But Abe also misrepresented the extent of Japanese crimes during World War II, he said in a phone interview.
In March, Shin and other activists helped survivors ask the United Nations to reconsider their claims at the International Court of Justice.
More than any other Japanese politician, Abe amplified fringe revisionist views and generalized them, Shin said. “Surviving victims in the Asia-Pacific region will have mixed feelings about his sudden demise and the legacy he leaves behind.”
Vic Chiang and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.