Former leaders can offer perspective, and should model magnanimity

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga delivers a eulogy at Abe’s state funeral on Sept. 27 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.

Recent speeches by two former prime ministers have attracted much attention in Nagatacho, as Japan’s political world is known. Both speeches were in memory of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot and killed during the House of Councillors election campaign in July of this year.

“He was a political foe like an enemy. I wanted to fight with you again in a serious match that would have sparked a firestorm.”

On Oct. 25, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, currently a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), the leading opposition party, stood at a podium in the House of Representatives and delivered a memorial speech to Abe in a somber atmosphere.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda delivers a speech in remembrance of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Diet on Oct. 25.

In Noda’s speech, he referred to Abe’s close relationship as prime minister with then U.S. President Donald Trump and praised him for his “natural talent for bringing people closer together.”

Noda also recalled that when his own time as prime minister (as leader of the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan) ended in a 2012 lower house election loss to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Abe gave him words of encouragement directly. Noda described Abe as a “fighting politician,” but also remembered him as “a kind and caring person once he took off his armor.” Akie Abe, sitting in the audience holding a portrait of Abe, listened to Noda’s speech with tears in her eyes.

Abe and Noda have very different backgrounds. Abe grew up in a family of leading LDP politicians. His grandfather was former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and his father was former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. After working as his father’s secretary, he entered politics. From a young age, Abe was seen within the LDP as a future candidate for prime minister, and in 2006 he became prime minister at just 52.

Noda, on the other hand, was the son of a Self-Defense Forces officer. After graduating from university he entered the Matsushita Seikei Juku, a private school for training future political leaders, which was established by Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita. Noda became well known for the daily morning speeches he made in front of train stations in his hometown to boost his name recognition. In September 2011, amid the turmoil in Japan after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, he was elected prime minister.

When Noda delivered his memorial speech in the Diet on Oct. 25, public opinion in Japan was divided over Abe’s state funeral, which had been held on Sept. 27.

In a nationwide poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun in early September, 38% of respondents said they approved of the decision to hold a state funeral, while 56% said they did not approve. Sensing the growing public opposition to the national funeral, CDPJ leaders decided, in principle, to refrain from participating in it. Partisan conflict became involved in the question of whether to hold a state funeral.

Although not yet to the same extent as in the United States, society in Japan is becoming increasingly divided, with people insulting each other and denigrating each other’s personalities and very existence, especially on social media.

Noda, despite his party’s decision not to participate, did attend the state funeral, saying, “It does not fit my view of life that a former prime minister does not attend the funeral of a former prime minister.”

In his memorial speech, Noda mourned Abe in a generous way, and expressed his determination to defend democracy. Rather than vocally condemning him, Noda emphasized respect for different positions, even if the two former leaders’ principles and arguments differed from each other. By demonstrating common values that transcend party lines and that are the foundation of democracy, the speech expressed a desire to prevent any possible fragmentation of Japanese politics and society.

The United States once had a good tradition. When a president left office, it was customary to leave a handwritten letter in the Oval Office of the White House for the new president. In 1993, George H.W. Bush left such a letter to Bill Clinton, who at the age of 46, was succeeding him as president.

“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. But just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. Your success now is our country’s success.”

These warm words by Bush, whose bid for reelection was thwarted by Clinton, are an example of the American tradition of presidents serving their country beyond party affiliation or ideology. The sentiments expressed in Bush’s letter seem to overlap with those in Noda’s memorial speech.

The other former Japanese prime minister whose speech made headlines this year was Yoshihide Suga, who served as chief cabinet secretary in the second Abe administration. At Abe’s state funeral, Suga also delivered a eulogy. In a simple and distinctive tone, he recalled his friendship with Abe before his death.

He shared an anecdote about how he spent three hours at a yakitori restaurant in Ginza persuading Abe, who was unsure about running for the LDP presidency in 2012 after having stepped down as prime minister in 2007, to try again.

He recalled that Abe eventually decided to run. “I will always be proud of this as the greatest accomplishment of my lifetime.” Suga’s speech was also praised by many Japanese.

The two former prime ministers, Noda and Suga, have been getting a lot of attention in the wake of their speeches about Abe. If the Kishida administration’s approval rating continues to fall, one LDP lawmaker speculated that “there could be a wave of calls for Suga to be nominated as prime minister again.” Also, as the CDPJ’s support rate has been stagnant for a long time, some have begun to say that Noda should lead the party and seek a change of government. Both men’s next actions will be very interesting to watch as the future of Japanese politics unfolds.

In Japan, only two postwar politicians have returned to the prime minister’s office after stepping down once. Shigeru Yoshida, who signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty after the Pacific War, was one. Shinzo Abe was the other.

Regardless of their hidden ambitions, the words and actions of former leaders carry a great deal of weight for Japanese society. It is undesirable for them to pander to public opinion, stir up conflict with populist statements, or make gaffes that will draw criticism from the international community.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has announced his intention to run for the presidency again in 2024, continues to show no sign of respect for his political opponents, and criticizes them harshly and abusively, creating ever deeper divisions in American society.

“Only words have the power to overcome the madness of violence.” “Let us engage in constructive debate with sincere words and let us make our democracy healthier and stronger.” I would like to believe that these words by Noda in his speech are a sign of the resilience of Japanese democracy.

Because former leaders have experienced the ordeals of brutal power struggles, they are better able to stress the importance of dialogue and mutual understanding as the foundations of democracy after they leave their positions. They are surely among the few who can do something significant to prevent political and social fragmentation amid today’s shaky international order.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Junya Hashimoto

Hashimoto is a deputy editor in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.