On an April morning at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, cherry-blossom petals fall like confetti around the Shinto worshippers who have come to offer their prayers. Pilgrims approach the austere shrine, clap twice and bow their heads. They are honoring the memory of 2.5 million Japanese war dead, whose souls are enshrined at Yasukuni and are considered divine. Nearby, on the shrine’s grounds, a military-history museum presents a less peaceful scene. Amid the maps and swords and glass cases containing soldiers’ letters home are exhibits that glorify Japan’s imperial march across Asia, justify the bombing of Pearl Harbor as a necessary response to U.S. intransigence and airbrush atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers. The Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese troops killed, raped and rampaged across the former Chinese capital, is described as an “incident.”
On Dec. 26, 2013, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, dressed in a somber morning suit, walked behind a Shinto priest and paid his respects at Yasukuni. Japan’s last six leaders pointedly stayed away, mindful that conferring official recognition on a shrine that honors top war criminals among the deceased would anger Asian nations where those crimes were committed. But Abe had said that not visiting Yasukuni was the great regret of his first term in office from 2006 to ’07. Predictably, his visit drew furious condemnation from China and South Korea, two nations that suffered most under Japan’s expansionism. Even the U.S., Japan’s staunch ally and security guarantor, expressed its disappointment.
But Abe was playing to a different audience, sending a message not about love of war but about love of country. If his critics see it as a crude bit of nationalist provocation, so be it. “I paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the souls of those who had fought for the country and made ultimate sacrifices,” he told Time in an interview. “I have made a pledge never to wage war again, that we must build a world that is free from the sufferings of the devastation of war.”
Japan’s transformation from an imperial aggressor to the world’s second largest economy and champion of peaceful ideals was one of the most redemptive tales of the 20th century. But nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, the pistons have stalled. In 2011 the Japanese economy lost its No. 2 status to China. Beijing is flexing its muscles, aggressively pursuing territorial disputes with Japan and other neighbors. Meanwhile, Japan’s population is both aging and shrinking. For all its high-tech wizardry, the country feels sapped of the motivating power that propelled its rise. The 2011 triple shock of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, which claimed nearly 16,000 lives, only underscored this sense of national drift.
As Japan searches for its soul, Abe–grandson of a wartime minister once arrested by the Allied powers, collector of revisionist friends and Japan’s first Prime Minister born in the postwar period–has positioned himself as a national savior. Powered with a rare electoral mandate, Abe, 59, has vowed to halt Japan’s slow march toward international irrelevance. Two decades of economic deflation and the lingering weight of wartime loss, in the view of Abe and his allies, have forced the country into a submissive crouch. It was time for some backbone. The 2012 campaign slogan of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was “Restore Japan.” Even his controversial economic-reform package, dubbed Abenomics, is a projection of the PM’s vision to return Japan to greatness. “I am a patriot,” Abe says, explaining one of his personal motivators. “When I came to office, in terms of diplomacy and national security as well as the economy, Japan was in a very severe situation.”
Whether Abe is a galvanizing change agent or a nationalist legatee who is driving his country back to the future, there is no doubt that he is Japan’s–and possibly the continent’s–most consequential politician in some time, having halted the revolving door that has seen six Prime Ministers come and go in as many years. With the LDP having secured a pair of electoral victories over the past two years, Abe is likely to rule until at least 2016.
This gives him latitude to tackle a long to-do list: rejuvenate the economy by ramming through structural reform, encouraging innovation and bringing more women into the labor force; revise the postwar constitution, which was written by the occupying Americans, to allow for a more conventional military; and most of all, play cheerleader to a nation in need of a jolt of banzai self-esteem. “Abe is of the view that Japan needs to stop getting kicked around,” says Michael J. Green, Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who, from his days as senior director for Asia on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, knows Abe well. “He thinks about history and world affairs, strategy–he loves that stuff. He wants to be a strategic realpolitik player.”
Abe’s success depends, first and foremost, on his ability to revitalize the economy. So far, the first two phases of Abenomics–fiscal stimulus and monetary easing–have coincided with an uptick in growth and stock-market sentiment. Last September, in a speech at the New York Stock Exchange, Abe even sold his namesake plan as a blueprint for global revival. But the third arrow of Abenomics will be the trickiest to fire: structural reform aimed at dismantling business inefficiencies that hamper Japan’s global competitiveness. Already, growth is tapering, and a sales-tax hike unveiled this month could dampen consumer spending.
Without an economic resurgence, Abe will have a hard time achieving his greater goal of refashioning Japan as a modern nation-state–a democratic force that can be a counterweight to an authoritarian China. Japan is now a society where even the young have downsized their dreams. “People have lost confidence,” says Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister and Abe’s younger brother, who believes the Prime Minister wants to encourage “amity, love for the homeland and patriotic spirit. I think these form the basis for Japan restoring its confidence.”
It is into this complicated landscape that President Barack Obama is due to arrive in late April–a long-delayed trip after plans last year were foiled by the U.S. government shutdown. Obama will spend two nights in Japan, then stop in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. (Notably, he is skipping China.) “There’s general excitement in the U.S. about a Japanese leader who looks like he wants to step up to challenges and is able to do it with popularity behind him,” says Vikram Singh, vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. But reservations quickly follow. “[Japan] should be proud of its postwar way of being but should be honest about its wartime history,” says Singh. “And failing to do that is one of the great shortcomings of modern Japanese politics.”
The Rising Son
Japan may pride itself on being Asia’s oldest democracy, but its networks of power are rooted in families. Few Prime Ministers have taken office without a famous forefather before him. Abe is the son of a Foreign Minister and grandson of a Prime Minister. He says the commitment of his father Shintaro Abe to securing a peace treaty with the then Soviet Union, even as he was dying of cancer, impressed upon him the importance–and the sacrifices–of public service: “I learned … that you may have to risk your own life to make such a historical accomplishment.” His paternal grandfather Kan Abe was a rare critic of the militarist impulses of wartime leader Hideki Tojo and opposed embarking on war with the U.S.
But it is Abe’s maternal grandfather who looms largest in Japanese history. Nobusuke Kishi served in the wartime Cabinet as the head of the Ministry of Munitions and directed industrialization efforts in Manchuria, the northeastern Chinese region that Tokyo turned into a puppet regime. Manchuria was ground zero for some of imperial Japan’s worst crimes, from armies of forced labor to biochemical experiments on civilians. After Japan’s defeat, the Allied powers locked Kishi up for three years, but he was never charged with war crimes. A decade later, he emerged as a pro-Western Prime Minister who cemented the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. His rehabilitation, like that of many wartime political figures, was sanctioned by the Americans, who occupied Japan for seven years.
Despite his lineage, Abe is, in some ways, an unlikely figure to rebuild the nation. In 1982, after working briefly for a steel company, he joined his father, then Foreign Minister, as a secretary. He soon found his political voice–a hawkish tone born of a Thatcher-Reagan-style conviction in the clarity of conservative principles. The LDP was a big ideological tent, which has helped it rule Japan for all but a handful of the postwar years by shape-shifting to the electorate’s mood. But Abe made his name on the right of the party spectrum, signing on to causes that downplayed or denied Japanese wartime atrocities.
In his earlier term, Abe was Japan’s youngest Prime Minister. The voters were concerned about the economy, but Abe frittered away political capital on nationalist causes, like educational reform that would increase flag-waving in schools. A year into his tenure, he resigned, blaming his retreat on a rare intestinal ailment. In the intervening years, the LDP–and Japan as a whole–has edged closer to Abe’s political moorings. One trigger was domestic, the incompetence of the vaguely left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), whose three years in power were consumed by economic dithering and political infighting. In December 2012 elections, the LDP crushed the DPJ by riding the protest vote and later pushed Abenomics as a path forward. “We were frozen in a deflationary mind-set,” says Abe’s economic adviser Etsuro Honda, who thinks Japan’s economy had reached a make-or-break moment. “The Prime Minister proposed a totally unprecedented trial … that cannot be allowed to fail.”
The China Card
The other catalyst of Japan’s rightward shift was external: the rise of China, now ruled by its own nationalist leader, President Xi Jinping. In 2012, Japan, under the DPJ, nationalized some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo administers but to which Beijing lays claim. Since then, Chinese military maneuvers in contested waters have increased, and in 2013, Japanese jet sorties climbed to their highest numbers since the Cold War. Last year China declared the skies above the islands as part of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone and demanded that flights crossing the airspace notify Chinese authorities. The U.S., among other nations, has ignored this request and has criticized China for changing the status quo in such a volatile part of the world.
In 2007, when Abe left office, 67% of Japanese expressed negative views toward China, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. By 2013, that number had risen to 93%. Against China’s double-digit military-budget hikes, Abe’s calls to strengthen Japan’s armed forces didn’t sound so silly. Last year Japan’s defense budget saw its first–albeit modest–increase in more than a decade; 2014 has brought more money.
Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese relations remain in a deep freeze, although that doesn’t prevent China from serving as Japan’s largest trading partner, with more than $330 billion in bilateral trade in 2012. Abe has never had a summit with Xi, meaning that the leaders of the world’s second and third largest economies aren’t talking to each other. Proposals by Japan to set up a hotline between the two nations over the contested islands have been rebuffed by China, which says Japan must first admit to the existence of a territorial dispute–something Tokyo refuses to do. Although the U.S. takes no position on who rightfully owns the islands, called the Senkaku by the Japanese and the Diaoyu by the Chinese, Washington has said its security treaty with Japan covers the bits of uninhabited rock. “We have told the Chinese that risk reduction is not a concession to Japan,” says a senior U.S. Administration official, who acknowledges that unintended clashes in the East China Sea could spark a larger conflict.
Given how quickly the Japanese electorate gets disenchanted with its leaders, Abe’s popularity has proved remarkably buoyant. But support for his most hawkish goals is not assured. One of his pet projects is revising the postwar peace constitution, which was forced on the Japanese by the Americans and precludes Japan from possessing a normal military. (It does have well-funded armed forces, limited to defensive actions.) “I say we should change our constitution now,” Abe says, noting that Japan is a rare democracy to never have amended its constitution. Yet, for all their worries about China, most Japanese do not support measures for a more active military, polls show. Even LDP elders have expressed reservations about Abe’s push for what’s called collective self-defense, in which Japan could defend allies like the U.S. from foes like North Korea. “[Abe is] implementing his rather right-wing policy in national security and diplomacy,” says former LDP secretary general Makoto Koga. “It makes people feel concerned.”
Such criticism helps explain why Abe has backtracked on a couple of nationalist issues that played well with the LDP’s base. While campaigning in 2012, he called for a revision of the 1993 Kono Statement, the admission by a former Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary that Japan’s military forced Asian “comfort women” into sexual slavery. In late February the Abe government announced it was re-examining the way in which the Kono Statement was formulated. Abe says that during his first term, “a Cabinet decision was made stating that there was no information that shows people were forcibly recruited.” Public opinion, though, didn’t clearly support such a move. Last month the Abe administration announced it would be leaving the statement alone.
According to Japan’s foundational myth, the Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, founded the Japanese imperial house more than 2,600 years ago. Since then, an unbroken line of male heirs has tied Japan’s royal family to the divine. Shinto, in its latter state-linked form, deifies this imperial cosmology. The faith’s role in providing spiritual justification for wartime Japan–kamikaze suicide pilots dying in the name of the Emperor–tainted the state religious doctrine. In 1946, after Japan’s defeat in the war, Emperor Hirohito issued an imperial rescript that renounced “the false conception” that he was an incarnation of a god. The Americans stripped Shinto of its status as the national religion.
When Abe talks of restoring Japan, he often means economic rejuvenation. But one little-covered development of the Abe era is the renaissance of Shinto in Japanese politics. Abe is the secretary general of a parliamentary Shinto alliance, which has increased its membership from 152 parliamentarians before the LDP took power in December 2012 to 268 today. Sixteen of 19 Cabinet ministers are members; in the DPJ’s government, there were none. “Prime Minister Abe advocates breaking from the postwar regime and restoring Japan, and we share the same thoughts,” says Yutaka Yuzawa, the administrative director of a Shinto political association, whose father was once the lead priest at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Last fall, Abe became the first sitting PM in more than eight decades to participate in one of Shinto’s holiest festivals, in which the Emperor’s ancestors, all the way up to sun deity Amaterasu, are honored. In a major speech this year, Abe used Shinto vocabulary to glorify his homeland.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating a homegrown faith that worships nature alongside ancient ancestors. But some politicians pushing for a Shinto resurgence also equivocate on Japan’s responsibility for the war. It’s instructive that Hirohito stopped visiting Yasukuni in 1978, after the enshrinement of top war criminals, presumably as a protest against the shrine’s hijacking by conservative elements. Japan’s ambivalent attitude toward its wartime past is often contrasted with that of Germany, which has vocally apologized for the Holocaust and supported the construction of genocide memorials. China, for one, says Japan hasn’t adequately repented for World War II. Abe disagrees. “In the previous war, Japan has given tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those of Asia,” he says. “Previous Prime Ministers have expressed their feelings of remorse and apology. In my first administration, I also did so.”
But critics point out that Abe has fraternized with deniers of history. Last year he co-wrote a book with Naoki Hyakuta, a best-selling author who believes both the Nanjing Massacre and the military’s enslavement of “comfort women” are fictitious. “Japanese feel embarrassed about our country, our national flag, our national anthem,” says Hyakuta, whose novel about a conflicted kamikaze pilot sold 4 million copies and spawned a popular film late last year. “Mr. Abe is trying to restore basic things, such as national pride.”
Just how far does Abe want to go? “I’m extremely worried,” says Koga. “I want to ask Mr. Abe, You say, ‘Break from the postwar regime.’ Do you want to say … that Japan’s peace diplomacy was a mistake and that you want to make Japan into a modern and masculine country as in the prewar era?” Political scientist Koichi Nakano, who teaches at Tokyo’s Sophia University, puts Abe’s politics in a regional context: “The hard-liners in East Asia, they need each other,” he says, speaking of Abe, Xi (son of a revolutionary leader), North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (scion of the Kim political dynasty) and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye (daughter of a former strongman). “Their dominance of domestic politics depends on foreign enemies. This is a dangerous game playing across the region.”
Indeed, Abe’s popularity at home may depend on proving that his spine is stiff enough to stand up to the likes of China. After so many years of rudderless leadership, Japan has a Prime Minister whose pronouncements are closely watched by the world. The question is whether Abe’s active sense of patriotism–not to mention his evasions of wartime history–limns Japanese sentiments. The bravest leaders, of course, can guide their people, not just submit to their wishes. “I get criticized from time to time,” says Abe, “as I try to exercise what I believe to be right.” Penitent bows just aren’t the style of Japan’s chief patriot.
–With reporting by Chie Kobayashi/Tokyo and Michael Crowley/Washington
This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.