Written by Ti-han Chang.
11:30 am on the 08th of July in Japan, unexpected news of Shinzo Abe 安倍晉三 being shot during his public speech travelled quickly on the international news media. However, the very fact of this happening has profoundly shaken societies in the East Asian region. For Japan, it appears there is a need to reflect deeper on the homogeneous nature of its internal political structure; for other countries in the region, on their indissociable geopolitical dynamics with their close neighbour over the last few decades.
Shinzo Abe: A “Taiwan-friendly” icon or a “post-“colonial romanticised figure
Within half a day, news feeds on social media platforms were flooded with Taiwanese Abe supporters’ messages to commemorate his death, ranging from pro-democratic and pre-independent camp’s Taiwanese politicians to common civilians who are more vocal in branding and promoting Taiwan’s national identity. The shared logic of reasoning (and at the time an “unofficial narrative”) behind their support and empathy for Abe’s death is that: “Abe is a true friend of Taiwan, and on numerous occasions, he had openly supported Taiwan’s political legitimacy on international ground.” Further still, the established amicable political relations between Taiwan and Japan can be traced back to former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui’s friendship with Shinzo Abe.
This “unofficial narrative” soon became the “official narrative”. Twenty-four hours later, all Taiwanese news channels reporting on Abe’s death either refer to him as the last “Taiwan-friendly” political icon or celebrate Abe’s anecdote of supporting Taiwan-cultivated pineapples when the fruit was banned from import to China in early 2021. The formation of this “official narrative” comes from most notably Taiwanese Abe sympathisers, who are – as aforementioned – in majority DPP-leaning and defend pro-democratic values. Generally speaking, these Abe sympathisers also identify themselves as more culturally progressive and socially left-wing or centrist-positioning. In other words, they withhold values in creating LGBTQ+ friendly communities, paying attention to aboriginal and immigrant human rights, supporting renewables and condemning nuclear and traditional fuel energy consumption. Yet, little did they know that their very black-and-white choice over “Taiwan-friendly” or “Anti-Taiwan” foreign politicians is, in fact, a way to reveal their own inherent right-wing nationalistic tendency. I’d therefore argue that, to a large extent, the inconspicuous yet highly influential right-wing politics overshadowing the pro-democratic or left-wing camps in Taiwan is very similar to what we witnessed in the political evolution of post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong. The claimed pro-democracy left-wing stance continues to be guided and shaped by the uprising nationalism as an inevitable “post-“colonial fate for these young democracies. To put it more simply, reading Taiwan from this “post-“colonial lens, the country has to romanticise its distant colonial past and reconfigure or reappropriate it in the present. Moreover, this romanticisation often becomes an absolute necessity. Vocalising support for a deceased “Taiwan-friendly” Japanese politician who could potentially be argued as a Japanese ethnocentric nationalist ultimately becomes an (un)conscious act to erase the traumatic suffering Taiwan underwent during its Japanese colonial period. In line with this, I argue to cast a positive light on Abe’s figure is a deliberate act to romanticise Taiwan’s colonial distant past.
Abe and his right-wing political measures
But in what way do these Taiwanese Abe-sympathisers overlook Abe’s right-wing politics? First and foremost, when Abe was in his prime minister position, he was generally known as a right-wing leaning nationalist. Moreover, one can also argue that he promoted an ethnocentric ideology to a certain extent. For example, in 2013, Abe’s controversial visit to Yasukuni shrine 靖國神社 as the head of the State triggered high tension between Japan and its immediate neighbours, i.e., the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the People Republic of China (PRC), as both countries viewed the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past imperial aggression in the region during World War Two. Though later, he had not personally visited the shrine during his mandates again, it was confirmed that Abe continued to support the shrine and sent offerings via others.
From an environmentalist perspective, Abe can hardly be qualified as the most empathetic political figure who carefully considered environmental sustainability and biodiversity conservation. On the one hand, his announcement of resuming Japan’s commercial whaling and genuine support for scientific whaling research was critically challenged by United Nations (UN). Further, it resulted in Japan leaving International Whaling Committee (IWC). Reports also show that, in the past, Abe also openly supported dolphin-hunting in Taiji and claimed that traditional dolphin-fishing practice is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and deserves to be respected. However, two recent documentaries, The Cove (2009) and Seaspiracy (2021) obliged us to confront the cruelty of this mass-slaughtering business and the dark industries that go far beyond Abe’s cultural claim of traditional fishing.
On the other hand, compared to other Japanese prime ministers’ rules, Abe’s government also had a more “nuclear-friendly” strategy, as it prioritised the country’s overall economic gain. After the tragedy of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, he was the first prime minister who proposed to reopen and phase back for an increase in nuclear energy production, despite the general Japanese citizens having expressed their high concerns and discontent. Before Abe’s second mandate, both Prime Ministers, Natao Kan and Yoshiko Noda, focussed more on the government’s efforts to rapidly develop renewables. However, in 2013, when Abe resumed his leadership role, a proposal for the gradual reopening of ten nuclear reactors was swiftly brought to the table.
Possibility to break the chain from colonial romanticisation?
Surely, the tragedy of Shinzo Abe’s death should not be interpreted reductively simply because Abe’s sympathisers exist in Taiwan, and the entire assassination event merits further reflections on how the Japanese society comes to this point in manifesting people’s discontent. However, with the aforementioned issues that one identifies from Abe’s politics, it appears to me that Taiwan’s sympathisers to Abe only consider Abe’s support of Taiwan in a very superficial manner, and they overlook (un)intentionally what Abe had implemented as policies in the last 20 years of his political life. One cannot but feel curious what is the logical explanation for aligning Taiwan’s political/national identity with Japan’s right-wing nationalist figure without a deeper reflection on his regional controversy. I believe this phenomenon articulates a particular “post-“colonial symptom often manifested in places where multi-layered colonial experiences occurred. Through a process of internalising a romanticised ideal of its distant colonial experience/colonisers, it can “legitimately” justify its political autonomy and national identity when confronting the more recent colonisers’ imposition or oppression. For Taiwan, only when people can self-identify their enjoyment of this “post-“colonial symptom could there be ways to break chains from such colonial romanticisation and give rise to a genuine political subjectivity.
Ti-han Chang is a Lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. She researches and teaches various interdisciplinary subjects, such as sustainable development and socio-political movements in the Asia Pacific region. She also specialises in Taiwan studies and delivers teaching dedicated to Taiwan’s postcolonial history, literature, and society. Ti-han is particularly interested in postcolonial ecocriticism, which draws her attention to topics such as nonhuman agency, borders and nations, climate change and migration. She currently serves as the executive board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS). Since 2019, she has been engaged with multiple research projects investigating the impacts of climate change on the Pacific Islands and the voices of Indigenous peoples. Apart from her journal publications on Taiwanese eco-literature, she also contributes online articles on more general eco-literature or political-related topics for The Conversation and Taiwan Insights.