November 2023

New manga/book about Shinzo Abe’s early years is a study in hagiography

It's a book of more than 540 pages. On the cover, a man in a blue suit, a parliamentary pin on his jacket and waving with his right hand, is drawn in the style of a manga hero: His name is Shinzo Abe: The manga’s title: Warera no Abe Shinzo (Our Shinzo Abe).

Inside, there 92 pages of manga signed by "team Abe" with no further details. We know neither the author of the script nor the name of the illustrator. In fact, it is a long extract from the manga Abe Shinzo Monogatari (The Shinzo Abe story) to be published on 1 December.

The manga section follows more than 430 pages of articles written by admirers of the former prime minister, who was assassinated in Nara on 8 July 2022. To summarize: it is a long hagiography of the man who spent a record eight years and eight months in office over two administrations.

The book-manga is published by the conservative Asuka-shinsha, with the support of Hanada magazine - a haven for Abe acolytes. Among the contributors are, unsurprisingly, the two former prime ministers Yoshiro Mori and Yoshihide Suga, as well as Shinzo's brother and former defense minister Nobuo Kishi, the current economic security minister Kanae Takaichi, and the polemical writer and founder of the Conservative Party of Japan, Naoki Hyakuta. Shinzo's mother, Yoko Abe, is interviewed by former NHK journalist Akiko Iwata, who for years was Shinzo Abe's mouthpiece on Japanese public television. 

The manga tells the story of Abe's early years, focusing on his political awakening in a family where his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, his father, Shintaro Abe, and his uncle, Eisaku Sato, all served as role models and mentors during his formative years.

The manga is instructive in many ways. Abe, drawn at a young age to resemble a Western model, is presented as a political prodigy whose destiny was to become prime minister and pursue the conservative missions that neither his father nor grandfather had accomplished. He is portrayed as a perfect schoolboy, an exemplary student, a problem-free son and an ideal husband.

The story begins when Shinzo is very young, at the time of protests against negotiation for the U.S.-Japan security treaty. The prime minister at the time, Shinzo's grandfather Nobusuke, signed the treaty but was later forced to resign. He left unfinished business: to restore Japan's sovereignty by rewriting the U.S.-authored postwar constitution. The story ends when Abe wins his first election as representative of the first constituency in Yamaguchi prefecture, following the death of his father Shintaro, who had failed to become prime minister.

Although Shintaro Abe worked for the Mainichi Shinbun before entering politics, Shinzo quickly developed an aversion to the media, notably the Asahi Shimbun, and university professors portrayed in the manga as leftists, and whom Shinzo had already dared to confront in class, watched with admiration by his fellow students.

According to the manga account, a young Shinzo said to himself: "I may have political blood running through my veins, like my father and grandfather. My family is not an ordinary family.”

Some episodes still raise doubts, such as the day in 1967 when, in class, just as the teacher was about to start the lesson, a pupil asked him to turn on the television to watch the results of the election in Yamaguchi to see if Shinzo's father had been elected. The teacher agreed without question. The result – that Shintaro Abe was certain to be elected – was announced on TV a few moments later. If this, as the manga claims, had all happened on a school day – say the day after the election, which was held on Sunday, January 29, 1967 – then the results would have surely been known to everyone well before the class started.

This manga is also at pains to present Shinzo Abe as Japan’s foremost diplomat, having supplemented the statecraft he picked up during travels with his foreign minister father with his own supreme intellect.

For some readers not as well disposed to the Abe project as the authors, some episodes simply confirm the cronyism and nepotism that continue to flow through Japanese political life. While the manga does not gloss over the Recruit scandal, in which the Abe family was implicated, it includes a scene in which Shinzo reassures his father that he has done nothing wrong and has no cause to reproach himself.

I am eager to see how the manga series deals with Shinzo Abe’s terms as prime minister – not least the many failures and scandals that blighted his time in office. I wonder, too, how it will address the background to the untimely and tragic death of a politician who, for good or ill, is one of this country’s best-known public figures of modern times.

Karyn Nishimura is a correspondent for the French daily newspaper Libération and Radio France.