August 2023

The roots of Shinzo Abe’ assassination lie in the rabid anti-communism of the Cold War

Nobusuke Kishi, Shinzo Abe: Wikipedia; Tetsuya Yamagami web screenshot - Composite by Julio Shiiki

“Coming events cast their shadows before.” This remark is attributed to the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. Essentially it says that historical events, while occurring with no advance notice, are actually foreshadowed by auguries. With the passing of time, reflecting the wills of various players, the drama gains momentum and reaches its climax. 

In other words, the past offers an understanding of the present. This likely holds true with the assassination last summer of Shinzo Abe, Japan's former prime minister. 

On July 8, 2022, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, armed with a homemade weapon, shot and killed Abe in front of Yamato-Saidaiji train station in Nara Prefecture, while Abe was campaigning on behalf of his ruling party’s candidate for the Upper House election. According to media reports, Yamagami told interrogators that his mother had made sizeable donations to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification – previously known as the Unification Church – forcing his family into bankruptcy. 

“I believed Abe was tied to the Unification Church,” Yamagami was alleged to have said, in justifying his actions. “Nobusuke Kishi [Japan's Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960 and Abe’s grandfather] had brought the Unification Church to Japan. That’s why I killed him.”

During my research, five years before Abe's shock assassination, I stumbled upon a document that would cast its shadow on subsequent events. 

I had found the document, a personal letter from Nobusuke Kishi to U.S. President Ronald Reagan dated November 26, 1984, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. In the letter, Kishi had requested Reagan's assistance in obtaining the release from a U.S. federal prison of Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, often colloquially known as the Moonies.

Kishi had written: “Rev. Moon is now under unjust confinement. With your cooperation, I would like to ask that he be released by all means from his unfair imprisonment as soon as possible.” It went on to say: “My understanding of Rev. Moon is that he is a genuine man, staking his life on promoting the ideals of freedom and correcting communism.”

Two years earlier, at the Southern District Court in Manhattan, New York, Moon was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to an 18-month prison term and fined $25,000. Prosecutors alleged that in the 1970s, Moon failed to report interest income from bank accounts in New York and shares from a company with ties to his church. The defense contended that Moon was holding the funds as a trustee of the church, but his conviction was upheld on a split decision and Moon entered a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, from July 1984. Four months later, Kishi sent the letter to Reagan, requesting Moon's release.

In a letter dated March 5, 1985, Reagan replied to Kishi: “(The Executive Clemency request) is being considered by the Pardon Attorney’s office at the Justice Department. I can assure you that your thoughts will be given very careful consideration during this process. Thank you again for your thoughtfulness in sharing your views with me.”

It clearly indicates a polite refusal to Kishi’s request. Before Reagan sent the reply, his Deputy Attorney General sent a memorandum to the Counsel to the President, saying the U.S. Department of Justice opposed clemency. Separately, records of Moon’s trials were sent to the White House, and one of the issues on which it focused was the suspicious financing network of the Unification Church.         

According to court documents, the prosecutors alleged that bank accounts were used by Moon to purchase real estate in a New York suburb and furniture, as well as to cover his children’s school fees. The documents also alleged that the church had produced a set of false account books with spurious donations from Japanese members. The tax evasion trial of Moon exposed the shady financing network of the Unification Church.

As early as the 1980s, criticism had already been growing in Japan about the church’s high-pressure methods for soliciting donations, which led to financial ruin for members’ families. And as the documents indicate, a former prime minister of Japan asked the U.S. president to pardon the church's founder. It appears that Kishi himself was aware that his action might backfire. The letter was delivered to the White House through a Japanese friend, Kagehisa Toyama, the then president of RF Radio Nippon. And Reagan’s reply was sent to Kishi’s private office. This indicates that the correspondence was exchanged through back-channel diplomacy, bypassing Japan's foreign ministry. Had such correspondence been leaked to outsiders, it very likely would have plunged the minister into a scandal. 

Japan's foreign minister at the time of the Kishi-Reagan exchange was Shintaro Abe, husband of Kishi’s daughter Yoko. And Abe's secretary was their son, 30-year-old Shinzo.

As events transpired, the shadow cast by Abe's assassination was considerably longer. Why did Kishi request Reagan to release Moon from the prison in the first place? A document from the 1940s may be considered its starting point. In the document, dated April 24, 1947, it was recommended that Nobusuke Kishi, a suspected Class-A war criminal, be released from confinement. It is a matter of historical record that Kishi served as minister of commerce and industry in Hideki Tojo’s cabinet. He was among the co-signers of the declaration of war against the United States immediately after the attack on the Pearl Harbor and was deeply involved in Japan’s war efforts.

Just after Japan’s surrender in 1945, Kishi was arrested as a suspected class-A war criminal by the allied powers and was held at Tokyo’s Sugamo prison. A memorandum from the General Headquarters G2 Section, which was responsible for intelligence and maintaining security, to the Legal Section and International Prosecution Section, said: “It is significant that official records show no evidence whatsoever that Kishi was ever connected with any nationalistic or expansionist ideological societies.

“Unless the new completed prosecution phase of the IMTFE (author’s note: International Military Tribunal for the Far East) of major war crimes suspects has adduced evidence sufficient to form an indictment against Kishi in connection with his Manchurian activities and unless activity in Imperial Rule Assistance organizations is adjudged proper basis for indictment, G-2 recommends that Kishi is released from confinement in Sugamo Prison without preference of charges.”

In the 1930s, Kishi, then a senior bureaucrat of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, was dispatched to Manchukuo, Japan’s short-lived (1932-1945) puppet state, where he oversaw industrial development. The Chinese minister there was simply a figurehead, with Kishi effectively in charge. The power structure there was under the absolute control of Japan’s Kwantung Army. The GHQ’s investigation files described Kishi as a member of the “Manchuria gang.”

What was G2's motive in calling for the release from prison one of the gang's leaders? The answer was to counter the perceived immediate threat of communism at the time. The Cold War had already begun with the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a worldwide confrontation. In 1947, America's Central Intelligence Agency was newly launched, and the Japan Communist Party was expanding its influence.

In the early stages of the allied occupation, GHQ prioritized the democratization and demilitarization of Japan. It arrested war criminals, banned former leaders from taking roles in the new government and promoted labor unions. 

Meanwhile, concerns arose that excessive and hasty reforms might weaken Japan and enable communist influence to expand. The business community in New York was particularly concerned, and lobbied the government to alter GHQ’s occupation policies, through its influence on the Congress and media. Eventually, suspected war criminals were released and large numbers of former bureaucrats and politicians were allowed to return to the government. 

Referred to as the “reverse course,” a GHQ document clearly outlined that change. The document, dated December 23, 1948 – coincidentally the same day that former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six other Class A-war criminals were executed by hanging – ordered the release of 15 alleged war criminals from Sugamo Prison the following day, Christmas Eve. The list of inmates included Nobusuke Kishi, Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa.

The three men had been arrested as suspected Class-A war criminals. Later, Kishi would enter politics and rise to the post of prime minister, while Kodama and Sasakawa became known as powerful right-wing fixers. And all three would become active supporters of the International Federation for Victory over Communism, the anti-communist political organization set up by Sun Myung Moon.

Viewed in this light, Kishi’s 1984 letter to Reagan requesting Moon's release, and the GHQ’s advisory for releasing Kishi in 1947, could be said to share a common thread: the fight against communism, particularly the Soviet Union, against the backdrop of the Cold War.

According to this view, the West, to advance freedom and democracy, would stand on the side of absolute justice and justify any means to defeat the communist bloc. In support of that goal, an accused class-A war criminal and leader of the Manchuria Gang could be released from prison without hesitation. Likewise for tax fraud. Compared to the imminent threat of communism, they were minor irritants. That is the logic behind the two documents related to Nobusuke Kishi.

And then there was Shinzo Abe, who idolized his grandfather.

In the spring of 1960, tens of thousands of violent demonstrators gathered near the National Diet building and Kishi’s house. The Kishi cabinet was pushing ahead with revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which many feared would result in Japan being dragged into America's wars. Demonstrating leftist students and labor unionists shouted “Down with Kishi!” and some threw stones and burning newspapers into the house.

Five-year-old Shinzo Abe, who was yet to enter elementary school, was deeply moved by the anti-Kishi demonstrations and would later write about the experience in his book, toward a New Country.

Abe wrote: “From my childhood, for me, my grandfather appeared as sincere politician who consistently pondered the future of the nation. He maintained imperturbable calm despite the ferocious attacks against him, and as a family member, I started feeling proud of him. I thought those anti-security treaty demonstrators were on the wrong side.”

It was against that backdrop that the Unification Church made its way into Japan, bearing the standard of anti-communism. It opened its Japan headquarters next door to Kishi's house. As he grew older, Shinzo developed an affinity with conservative ideas and inherited his grandfather’s connection with the church in their joint battle against leftist activists. 

Kishi died in 1987, aged 90. Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end. But Abe’s relationship with the church continued. Decades later, Tetsuya Yamagami, Abe’s alleged assassin, was nurturing a growing hatred and desire for revenge, his anger boiling like magma beneath the surface of a volcano.

The eruption came in the form of two gunshots in front of a train station in Nara – the tragic end to a series of events cast on Christmas Eve 1948, when Nobusuke Kishi was released from Sugamo prison. 

The above is an edited excerpt from a longer Japanese article originally published in Shukan Shincho (January 5/12 2023).

Eiichiro Tokumoto is an author, journalist and "history detective" living in Tokyo.