When I last met Shinzo Abe, a few months before his assassination in Nara last Friday, he was strolling with his elderly mother through Yoyogi Park — an oasis of Tokyo greenery just a few minutes’ walk from his home.

Here was a political colossus who had based years of sloganeering and campaigning around the phrase “Beautiful Japan” enjoying two distinct types of beauty. One was the park in the prime of its seasonal glory, with pink blossoms jostling to match the former prime minister’s golf jumper. The other was the civilisational beauty of the stroll itself: a walk taken by the nation’s most recognisable and polarising politician without a shred of visible security but under the extraordinary and intangible protections of what we might call Pax Japonica.

This force field — a shield powered to a great extent by a societal stability established over decades — was breached catastrophically by Abe’s murder last week.

The precise motives and grievances of the killer were, at the time of writing, only roughly taking shape. Far less in doubt, though, is that Tetsuya Yamagami reportedly blasted his makeshift shotgun through a yawning gap in expectations. This was an attack that Japan — at an individual, institutional and collective level — had become unable to imagine. In a fatal split second, Yamagami made a hard-won comfort look like complacency.

The assassination, inevitably, raises the question of whether Pax Japonica will retain its formidable sway. The answer is that it almost certainly will. Security around politicians will tighten, the already very high police-to-protester ratio at demonstrations will climb, but the strong social propensity to self-control will remain.

One immediate effect, though, has been to recall the country’s more violent pre-Pax past. Even if Abe’s assassination was not (as seems likely) straightforwardly political in nature, dour commentary has drawn comparison with periods where Japanese blood was routinely spilled over politics — notably in the 1960s and 1930s. 

The implication is that, at least in the political context, modern-day Pax Japonica owes a great deal of its strength to apathy. Politics may have been a reliable emotion-boiler in Japan’s past, runs this argument, but no longer. This rings true. Abe, for all his historic importance, charisma and stature, was shot at an election rally in a city of more than 350,000 people but where attendees numbered in the low dozens.

Though voting may change after Friday’s horrors, analysts had previously expected turnout at Sunday’s Upper House elections to be a record low of about 40 per cent. There were no apparent obstacles for the Liberal Democratic party, which has held power for all but about five years of the past 67. The great danger, though, lies in conflating the admirable civic guarantors of Pax Japonica with this apathy and concluding that the latter is as vital as the former.

But this, intriguingly, is the thrust of an analysis made just days before Abe’s death, and from the mouth of another former prime minister and political giant. During a lecture, Taro Aso, a rightwing blue-blood who served as finance minister during Abe’s eight-year term, told his audience: “A country where you can live without taking an interest in politics is a good one. It’s much worse to be in a country where you cannot live without doing so.”

Aso is a man with a long history of comments often mistakenly referred to as gaffes but which are actually clear renderings of his thought processes. Hitler was bad, he once said, but his motive was good. The elderly should be allowed to hurry up and die. Japan’s big problem is women who decide not to have children. All solidly objectionable.

With his political apathy line, however, was the unpleasant feeling that, on this lone occasion, he might have a point. Spoken in a week where British politics forced an exhausting humiliation on the national bloodstream, the lauding of Japan’s low-pulse politics seemed almost wise. Almost.

In many ways, Aso’s apathy line is his most pernicious ever: now perhaps even more so as the nation recoils at the tragedy of a murdered leader and doubles down on its appreciation that the days of political agitation and violence are gone. Nobody, for a moment, would wish for a return to those times but there is peril in deciding that stability is assured by permanently low public interest in politics.

For all the half-heartedness of many of his reforms, Abe’s beautiful Japan was an ideal built on an abhorrence of stagnation and, for better or worse, a genuine belief that the entire electorate needed to be brought, with passion, behind a nation-defining reform of the constitution. His successors should never hope for public disengagement.

leo.lewis@ft.com



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