Abe Shinzo, it seems we hardly knew you
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Abe Shinzo, it seems we hardly knew you

A year has passed since former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was assassinated by a gunman during a campaign rally in Nara on July 8, 2022. Much like the assassination of US President John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, Abe's murder marked a watershed moment in Japan's history.

Abe's untimely death also gave the Japanese people a deeper insight into the mind of the country's longest-serving prime minister, revealing aspects of his private life that were previously hidden from public view.

The "public" Abe devoted his political career to the economic benefit and security of the Japanese people. During his nine-year tenure as prime minister, he embarked on 81 international trips to improve diplomatic relations with countries near and far. But his dedicated service came at a personal cost, as he struggled with ulcerative colitis for much of his adult life. The debilitating effects of this illness twice forced him to step down from the premiership.

Similarly, it was only after Abe's death that I, his close economic adviser for years, learned of the depth and intensity of his interests in art and music. I became aware of Abe's talent as a painter thanks to a friend who saw one of his paintings, which is now displayed prominently outside the office of the Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike.

Abe's painting, which was donated to the Tokyo metropolitan government's collection of furoshiki -- Japanese artistic gift wrappings made of cloth -- reminded me of Winston Churchill, who also found solace in painting as he led the United Kingdom through World War II.

In his memoir, Abe revealed his fondness for movies. When his commencement address at the National Defense Academy of Japan was made into a video, he said, "people do not care how videos are viewed by the public. Since I love movies, I am concerned about how my political videos are viewed by the public". In the original video, prepared by bureaucrats, the camera focused solely on Abe's face as he delivers his speech. He said, "Even I was reluctant to see my own face for such a long time".

Following Abe's suggestion, the video was re-edited. Rather than focus on Abe's face, the video now showcased the national, as well as international, activities of Japan's defence forces. The more visually engaging version of the video received a record number of views among commencement speeches.

Abe, it turned out, was a gifted pianist as well. He began taking piano lessons during his first year of primary school. Surprisingly, his father, Shintaro Abe, who served as Japan's foreign minister between 1982 and 1986, believed that the young Abe had "no special talent" and proposed that he quit the lessons.

Contrary to his father's initial assessment -- which most likely stemmed from his desire for his son to follow in his footsteps -- a video of Abe playing the piano shows that Abe had remarkable musical talent. Despite not having touched a keyboard for decades until he was 66, his rendition of a piece titled Flowers Bloom, composed in mourning for the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, was highly disciplined and captivating. Watching the video, recorded near the end of his career, it is clear that playing the piano also provided Abe with a sense of tranquillity that was often absent from his tumultuous political life.

The piece, along with Abe's performance, conveyed the Japanese prime minister's profound empathy for the thousands who lost their lives or were otherwise permanently affected by the earthquake. As a fellow pianist, I regret that our discussions, which largely focused on politics and economics, never extended to our shared love of music.

Since Abe's death, many Japanese have been surprised to learn of his multifaceted personality and broad range of interests. His many talents and passions, we have come to realise, enriched his political endeavours, adding depth to his public persona. But the value of hobbies goes beyond their direct utility. As Abe's piano playing shows, immersing ourselves in beauty enables us -- whatever our jobs -- to detach ourselves momentarily from the inescapable quotidian.

Abe was an extraordinarily gifted politician. His unwavering determination and willingness to take risks pulled Japan out of a two-decade economic slump. His strategic foresight helped shape the military and economic frameworks that now serve as Asia's pillars of stability. Moreover, like Kennedy, Abe accomplished all this with a radiant smile.

I firmly believe Abe's diverse artistic interests had a direct bearing on his political accomplishments. Far from being mere pastimes, Abe's creative pursuits enriched his skills as a politician and statesman, providing him with the necessary energy to achieve his lifelong goal of strengthening Japan's economy and defence. ©2023 Project Syndicate

Koichi Hamada, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, was a special adviser to former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

Koichi Hamada

Professor Emeritus at Yale University

Koichi Hamada is Professor Emeritus at Yale University and a special adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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