The Wild Card

Is popular Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trying to rewrite history with a radical nationalist new constitution?

TOKYO — Japanese voters are almost certain to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) an overwhelming victory in upper house elections on July 21. The election so far has focused largely on economic recovery -- and for once there's hope on the horizon. Abe's aggressive program of monetary easing and government spending has begun to jolt the economy out of nearly two decades of deflation and stagnation. The prime minister, who's been operating with only the lower house of the Diet backing him, is looking to regain a majority in the upper house to help push through his "third arrow" of structural reforms.

But voters who are pleased with his bold economic plans may also be unwittingly giving Abe free rein to pursue a radically nationalist agenda that risks destabilizing the already tense security situation in East Asia.

Abe and supporters in the conservative LDP, which already has a solid majority in the more powerful lower house, have made no secret of their desire revise the constitution, which has remain unchanged since it was adopted in 1947.

Abe failed with a similar agenda during his first, brief tenure as prime minister in 2006-2007, but the growing missile threat from North Korea and belligerent territorial claims by China have helped boost public support for revising the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9, and easing the ban on collective self defense, which prevents Japan's highly capable armed forces from coming to the aid of the United States or other allies, unless Japan or Japanese forces are attacked first.

Dramatic as these changes would be, the LDP's plans for amending the constitution go well beyond security issues, and could return Japan to an earlier and likely less benign version of itself. Draft revisions unveiled by the LDP last year would reduce press freedoms, designate the emperor as the head of state and impose new, nationalist-tinged requirements on citizens.  The public would be required, for example, to "respect" the rising-sun flag and "Kimigayo" national anthem -- symbols, in much of Asia, of Japan's World War II-era aggression and colonial expansion.

According to the LDP, the revised constitution would reflect "the history, culture and tradition of Japan. The current constitution includes some provisions that are based on the Western theory of natural rights. We believe these provisions should be revised."

Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Tokyo's Meiji University, said in an interview that the proposed revisions, if adopted, "would create a Japan we don't know."

"What the nationalists want is to take Japan back to some utopian vision of the 1930s that never really existed," says Repeta, who has argued constitutional issues before Japan's Supreme Court.

To be sure, Abe has taken a softer line on nationalist issues than critics had feared when he resumed office in December. Abe's first term ended after just 10 months in part because his plans to revise the constitution and strengthen the military were out of touch with much of the public mood.

Although Abe's current cabinet is peppered with staunch conservatives, he appointed relative moderates to head the key defense and foreign ministries. Abe so far has refrained from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 senior war criminals are enshrined, despite stating plans to do so during his campaign. Such visits invariably draw protests from China and South Korea. He has also acted with restraint in the face of repeated incursions by Chinese patrol ships into territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Instead, Abe has focused tightly on ending Japan's long economic slump -- first by pumping vast amounts of money into the economy and next by enacting a $116 billion stimulus package.

So far, it's worked. The economy grew at an annual rate of 4.1 percent during the first quarter; the yen shed nearly a third of its value, spurring exports and employment; and share prices on the Tokyo stock market have climbed some 25 percent since the first of the year. Business sentiment and consumer confidence are rising.

Still, Abe's nationalist leanings have managed to bubble to the surface. In April, he touched off a storm of protest from China, South Korea, and Japanese liberals when he stubbornly debated during a Diet session whether Japan had actually "invaded" China or committed "aggression" during the war. He also signaled that he did not fully accept the landmark 1995 apology for Japan's wartime conduct and colonial policies issued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

He raised eyebrows further when he led "Banzai" cheers for the emperor and empress during a Sovereignty Day ceremony in April, drawing a look of surprise -- if not outright disapproval -- from the imperial couple.

Abe eventually backed off his statements on historical issues, but not before damaging relations in Beijing and Seoul, and unsettling friends in Washington.

"My impression of Abe is that there is a battle going on between his brain and his heart," says Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University who has studied Japanese politics since the 1960s. "In his brain, he is pragmatic and realistic. But in his heart, he is emotional. He truly believes there is nothing in Japanese history, or that happened during the war, that anyone in Japan should feel bad about."

Abe's conservative roots go deep. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime cabinet minister who was arrested shortly after Japan's surrender on suspicion of war crimes. Kishi was never charged and later became prime minister; he was a strong backer of the U.S.-Japan alliance but failed in his efforts to revise the U.S.-drafted constitution in ways that are strikingly similar to what Abe and the LDP are now backing.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Abe developed a close relationship with his grandfather. Abe wrote in his 2006 book, Toward a Beautiful Country, that Kishi was his political role model and that he may have become "emotionally attached to conservatism" as a reaction to the stigma Kishi and many other former wartime leaders suffered during that period of political ferment.

Indeed, when Abe succeeded the popular Junichiro Koizumi in 2006, many of Abe's key positions were nearly identical to those of Kishi when he was in office. Unfortunately for Abe, those views were still largely out of fashion. Although a pension records scandal and gaffes by cabinet members were largely responsible for Abe's plummeting popularity and subsequent resignation, his fixation with revising the constitution did little to help.

So far, things are different this time. Abe has kept his nationalist leanings largely in check. The disciplined LDP presents a welcome change from the widely perceived incompetence of the Democratic Party of Japan, which held power from 2009 to 2012, a rare break in six decades of near-continuous LDP rule.  And the initial success of "Abenomics" has kept the prime minister's approval ratings in the mid 60 percent range.

During the upper house campaign, Abe and the LDP have tread softly on the issue of constitutional revisions. Rather than discussing substantive changes, they have focused largely on changing the amendment process itself, which they say sets the bar too high. The current process requires a two-thirds majority of both houses and a majority of voters in a national referendum. Abe and the LDP want to change that to a simple majority in both houses, with a national referendum held under new rules that critics says would favor passage.

Given the typically low voter turnout in national elections, it's conceivable LDP-sponsored amendments could pass under the new scheme with the support of as few as 30 percent of Japanese voters. Any change would almost certainly be viewed with suspicion in neighboring South Korea and China, and would fuel fears of rising militarism in Japan.

When voters go to the polls on July 21, Abe and the LDP are expected to gain a solid majority of the 242 of seats in the upper house, either outright or with its coalition partner, the Buddhist-linked New Komeito Party. That would give the LDP effective control of both houses of the Diet, with no requirement to call a new election for at least three years.

It's not clear just how hard Abe and the LDP will push for constitutional revisions. Having failed once, it's unclear whether Abe will risk his second try in office to pursue an uncertain agenda, says Robert Campbell, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Tokyo and a long-time social commentator on Japanese television and radio.

"Abe knows his legacy and the success of his whole party hinges on being able to make good on his economic policies," he says. "But he's also a very nationalist politician. So I imagine there's going to be a lot of rough water ahead of us."



The Ice Palace

Stepping back in time at the Belarusian embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Belarusian embassy in downtown Washington is a musty mansion with capacious ceilings that seem to hover and loom as if they are watching, which they probably are. The rugs are frayed, the chandeliers glow tentatively, and the floorboards creak so loud they sound like they're parodying themselves.

Like the government it represents, the place feels trapped in an earlier Soviet reality. When I visited in mid-June, almost everything about it -- from the kitschy paintings of medieval Slavic warlords to the Nescafé and the slightly stale cookies that the Belarusians serve their guests -- was identical to my last visit in 2005 (which past visitors told me was identical to the way things were ten years earlier.) Even the small, sad photograph of long-time Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko standing with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, both smiling, the former with a grin nestled under his moustache, was in the same place on the fireplace mantle.

There were a few small differences though. In 2008, Minsk yanked its ambassador from Washington in protest of U.S. economic sanctions; the United States reciprocated soon after.  Now the most senior Belarusian official in the United States is Chargé d'Affaires Oleg Kravchenko, who is 42, garrulous and large, and who maintains a staff of just four people in the embassy. And when Kravchenko whipped out a model of the most advanced Belarusian dump truck on the market, just like the ambassador did when I met him eight years before, it was newer and bigger. "It can carry 360 tons," Kravchenko beamed. "We exhibited it at an expo in Vegas in September."

I first traveled to Belarus in 2004. It's a land of gray-green countryside punctuated by rusting farms and cities notable for what they are missing: noise, for example, and people who are rude, and restaurants where you have to wait to get a table. When I returned in 2010 to research a book on Lee Harvey Oswald, who lived in Minsk from 1960 to 1962, I found being there strangely helpful: Belarus after the Soviet collapse was weirdly similar to how I imagined it had been in Oswald's day. There had been changes, of course -- they finished the metro, and there are now McDonald's and overpriced sushi restaurants. But everyone smoked heavily, no one jaywalked, and everything moved slowly; it felt Soviet in its demand for order.

And there's Lukashenko, in power since 1994, who U.S. diplomats in Minsk described as "bizarre" and "disturbed" in a 2009 Wikileaked cable. He appears to savor this role: In 2012, for example, he named his then seven-year-old son Nikolai, his successor -- the boy can be seen wandering around military events brandishing a gold pistol. Belarus today is home to 9.6 million people -- fewer than a decade ago. It seems sadder and riper for liberalization, even though the regime doesn't appear to be rethinking its policy on civil liberties, and Belarusians don't appear ready to fight for them, occasional brutally repressed protest notwithstanding.

Like the Soviet comedy Irony of Fate, in which a drunken Muscovite accidentally winds up in an apartment that is identical to his, but -- alas -- in a different city, there is something vaguely depressing and poignant about Belarus, and about its embassy in Washington. Irony of Fate was released in 1975, as an era of stagnation was ripening into a prolonged decline that culminated with the Soviet collapse. The film is touching in its smallness: the world it depicts is warm, almost sweet, and very separate from everywhere else. Maybe it's only nostalgia, but one can sense, in the familiar dankness and creakiness of the Belarusian embassy, that the country may be nearing a period of fermentation.

In good KGB fashion, Kravchenko preferred to discuss bad things about the United States instead of, say, the situation in Minsk or U.S.-Belarusian relations. During our hour-long meeting, Kravchenko brought up Wikileaker Bradley Manning, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, the National Security Agency (but weirdly not Edward Snowden), "inadequate" U.S. maternity leave, and gun violence. "For us," Kravchenko said, smirking just a little, "this is such a no brainer, getting rid of guns."

Unsurprisingly, Kravchenko says that the United States is to blame for the terrible state of relations between the two countries. But it is the Lukashenko regime that appears to have modeled its foreign policy after that of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, aligning itself with the world's bottom-feeders and seeking to thwart U.S. ambitions. Rumors swirled in June that Minsk was planning to provide rocket launchers to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Kravchenko denied this, but it's not that far-fetched of an idea -- Russia, Belarus's closest ally, is also Syria's most powerful backer. And in September 2012, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a state-owned Belarusian firm for selling arms to Syria, an allegation that Minsk denied. Lukashenko himself has called for sending military aid to Venezuela, and he's fond of publicly congratulating the North Koreans on their independence day.

But maybe it's just relations with the United States that are stuck in the past. Lukashenko seems to intuit that unlike its embassy, Belarus is not impervious to change. In 2009, he opened the state-funded, multi-billion-dollar Belarus High-Tech Park -- or, as Kravchenko called it, "the Silicon Valley of Belarus." The government is allowing the Chinese to build a $5 billion city on the outskirts of Minsk. Arthur Pratapopau, a spokesman for the Minsk company Wargaming.net, the creator of the popular online video game World of Tanks, said that unlike six years ago, would-be entrepreneurs are looking to tap into Belarus's rich cache of tech geeks. There is even a sleek, government-run media campaign that seeks to rebrand Minsk as a hip, laptop-saturated hub of creative professionals -- Portland with a splash of Tallinn.

But of course, Belarusian officials still sound more like Soviet drones than citizens of the world. "We don't have to do anything because of the pressure from the United States," Kravchenko said.

On my way out, Kravchenko reiterated that Belarus -- or, at least, the Belarusian Embassy -- would not be cowed by Washington. "We don't have to do anything because of the pressure from the United States," he said. Then he smiled, and said that he looked forward to hosting me again soon.