For Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Unfinished Family Business
Grandfather’s Wartime Legacy in China Is a Backdrop to Sunday’s Election

Photos: Getty Images, Shinzo Abe Office/Associated Press

By Yuka Hayashi
Dec. 11, 2014 10:21 p.m. ET

TOKYO – Shinzo Abe recalls sitting on his grandfather’s lap as a young boy 55 years ago. They listened to protesters in the streets outside who opposed the older man’s push to rebuild Japan’s military after World War II, Mr. Abe says. Soon after, Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, resigned as Japan’s prime minister, his aims for his country unfulfilled.

Now, as Japan’s most powerful prime minister in years, Mr. Abe is looking to complete some of his grandfather’s unfinished business.

On Sunday, Mr. Abe is expected to easily win a snap election that is widely seen as a referendum on his aggressive economic stimulus policies, known as “Abenomics.”

But in the background is a debate over Mr. Abe’s relationship with his controversial grandfather, an ardent nationalist who wanted to make Japan a global power and restore its honor after World War II.

Mr. Kishi was accused -- though never indicted -- of war crimes for helping to build imperial Japan’s war machine in the 1930s and 1940s.

He helped lead Japan’s occupation of Chinese Manchuria, a region of northeast China rich in coal and fertile farmland where Mr. Kishi oversaw a system that used conscripted Chinese labor and Chinese natural resources to feed Japan’s growth, historians say.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of the Japan Self-Defense Force in October 2014. Toru Hanai/Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of the Japan Self-Defense Force in October 2014. Toru Hanai/Reuters

Tortured History

  • Sept. 1905: Japan defeats Russia in Russo-Japanese War, gains control of Korea and much of South Manchuria.
  • Sept. 1931: Japanese personnel plot bombing of South Manchuria Railway, blaming Chinese dissidents. Incident gives Japan an excuse to expand its control of Manchuria.
  • March 1932: Manchukuo is established as a puppet state backed by Japan in Manchuria.
  • Aug. 1945: Manchukuo collapses as World War II ends.
  • Sept. 1972: China, Japan restore diplomatic relations, but tensions linger.

Later, as prime minister in the 1950s, he sought to rewrite the U.S.-imposed postwar Japanese constitution that renounced militarism—a step that Mr. Abe also would like to take.

Mr. Abe’s push to revive his grandfather’s policies and ambitions has worried some Japanese voters, especially because of the negative reaction of the Chinese government, whose relationship with Japan has soured in recent years.

  “A lot of what they say is the same. They both want constitutional revision and they both want rearmament of Japan,” said Takashi Ito, a Tokyo University emeritus history professor and a prominent expert on Mr. Kishi.

Mr. Abe mentions his grandfather frequently in speeches and Facebook posts. As he wrote in a 2006 book, growing up amid critical comments that his grandfather was a “war criminal” and the “embodiment of reactionary conservatism” may have had “the opposite effect of making me embrace conservatism.” He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Chinese historians focus on the darker side of Mr. Kishi’s past. In Shenyang, a city in northeast China that was an economic hub of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria, a museum commemorating the period displays a portrait of Mr. Kishi prominently alongside those of other colonial leaders.

Map of Japanese Manchukuo.

Chinese historians say Japanese forces in Manchukuo committed crimes ranging from forced prostitution to summary executions to chemical warfare experiments on humans.

Mr. Kishi’s “crimes pile up to the heavens; he is truly evil,” said Wang Qingxiang, a researcher of social science at the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, and one of China’s most prolific writers on Japan’s occupation of Manchuria.

Many in Japan believe those Chinese claims are false or exaggerated. Most international historians agree it is unlikely Mr. Kishi had a direct role in Manchukuo’s worst atrocities. But many believe he at least bears some responsibility, given his role as its chief industrial planner. Mr. Kishi blamed military officials for Japan’s conduct in Manchuria.

Mr. Abe has denied the historical charges and bases his argument for his grandfather’s innocence on the fact that he was never indicted for war crimes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a leaders’ summit in November 2014 in Beijing. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/Getty Images

But that has done little to smooth over relations with China, which hit a low last year after Mr. Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo that honors Japanese war dead, including some war criminals who were imprisoned with Mr. Kishi in the 1940s. (Mr. Kishi isn’t among those honored there). A recent bilateral meeting between Mr. Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping featured an awkward photo opportunity in which the two men frowned as Mr. Xi glumly shook Mr. Abe’s hand.

On some issues, Mr. Abe has made a point of declaring his disagreement with his grandfather’s views. While Mr. Kishi advocated heavy government intervention to lift up Japanese industries, Abenomics emphasizes deregulation in areas like agriculture.

Mr. Abe also has a different style than his grandfather, an academic star and extrovert skilled at networking. Mr. Abe is more private, spending much of his free time in the gym.

Still, even in economics, their policies often overlap. Mr. Abe hasn’t hesitated to use the government to nudge companies to raise wages or to adopt quotas for promoting women. His broader goal of reviving Japan’s economy to enhance its international clout is straight from the Kishi playbook.

And no other two Japanese leaders have pushed so hard to amend Japan’s constitution to expand its military – a radical notion in Mr. Kishi’s post-war era, but a goal that even Washington now supports as a way to check Chinese power. Currently Japan’s military can only act in self-defense.

Lobbying to bring the Olympic Games to Tokyo in 2020 last year, Mr. Abe reminded members of the International Olympic Committee that his grandfather contributed to the success of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo as an adviser. In Washington, he gave President Barack Obama a golf putter and told him how Mr. Kishi once played golf with President Eisenhower.

On a trip to Sri Lanka this year, he touted the fact that Mr. Kishi had visited decades earlier and pledged to “tightly hold the baton of friendship handed over from my grandfather.”

Even Mr. Abe’s campaign slogan for Sunday’s election invokes Mr. Kishi. In a 2007 essay, Mr. Abe praised his grandfather for pressing “forward no matter how many people were opposed, because his was the only path.” Mr. Abe’s slogan: “This is the only path.”

The Abe-Kishi Family Timeline

“It is the expression of the prime minister’s resolve that he will push ahead on the path that he believes in, not just on economic recovery but also in areas like changing national security policy and education reform,” said Hiroshige Seko, deputy chief cabinet secretary and a close aide to Mr. Abe.

Mr. Seko describes Mr. Kishi as a politician who was unpopular during his time and became appreciated only after history validated his policy choices.

“I think the prime minister wants to be a leader like that in the end,” he said.

Born in a small town in western Japan, Mr. Kishi traveled to Weimar Germany as a young bureaucrat in the 1920s and admired its industrial modernization. In 1936, he was sent to Manchuria, several years after Japan took it over.

He helped turn the area into an industrial juggernaut, implementing a Five-Year Plan inspired by similar efforts in the Soviet Union. He persuaded Nissan, a huge Japanese conglomerate, to relocate all its operations there.

Manchukuo’s economy “is a masterpiece I painted,” Mr. Kishi said when he departed in 1939.

Back in Tokyo, he headed the commerce ministry in Japan’s wartime government, which was later renamed the ministry of munitions.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Mr. Kishi was arrested by the U.S.-led occupation on suspicion of being a Class-A war criminal. The Tokyo war tribunal accused him of playing “a leading part in the preparation and enforcement” of Manchukuo’s economic model, which it said was “designed to enable Japan to carry on an aggressive war.”

The Case Against Mr. Kishi

He spent three years in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison, reading Crime and Punishment, writing poems for his wife and sewing his own underwear, according to his journal.

In December 1948, wartime military leader Hideki Tojo was hanged in Sugamo Prison along with six others.

But Mr. Kishi, a senior member of Gen. Tojo’s cabinet, was never indicted and was freed. With the Cold War starting, the U.S. wanted Japan to get back on its feet quickly and to rearm to an extent. Technocrats like Mr. Kishi were considered indispensable, historians say.

Eight years later, he became prime minister. Scholars credit his work, along with other like-minded Japanese leaders, for helping drive Japan’s impressive post-war economic revival, built largely around export industries supported by the government.

Mr. Kishi received a warm welcome when he visited the U.S. in 1957, 16 years after Pearl Harbor. He threw a ceremonial pitch at Yankee Stadium and addressed Congress, stressing Japan’s intention to fight communism.

Mr. Kishi had long been unhappy with the security treaty signed with the U.S. in 1952. He called it “unequal and unfair” for requiring Japan to host U.S. bases, with no U.S. obligation to protect Japan, and he eventually won an American commitment to protect Japan in the event of conflict.

Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi tosses a ball out on June 23, 1957 at Yankee Stadium in New York. Ray Howard/Associated Press

As he pushed the revised treaty through a divided parliament, protests raged. Demonstrators insisted that the treaty would ensnare Japan in U.S. wars and draw it back into militarism. Mr. Kishi was pushed from office months later.

Mr. Kishi never had a chance to work on his bigger goal: changing the constitution to give Japan more right to expand its military.

“I really wanted people to understand that defense and national security are extremely important for a sovereign nation to protect its independence,” he said.

Mr. Abe was born to Mr. Kishi’s daughter, Yoko Abe, in 1954. Because his father was also a politician who traveled frequently, the younger Abe stayed often at his grandparents’ home.

As he got older, Mr. Abe defended his grandfather’s record.

In one incident recorded in his 2006 book, “Towards a Beautiful Country,” Mr. Abe challenged a teacher at his Tokyo private high school after the teacher said that Japan should ditch the security treaty Mr. Kishi negotiated. Mr. Abe said it promoted better cooperation with the U.S.

Mr. Abe studied the treaty in college and came to believe revising it further was critical for Japan’s future, he wrote.

He became an aide to his father, Shintaro Abe, who was foreign minister. Mr. Abe won a vote to take over his father’s parliament seat in 1993 after his father died.

In his first stint as prime minister in 2006, Mr. Abe pursued his grandfather’s goal of revising the constitution. He also made his appreciation for his grandfather better-known.

During a visit to India in 2007, he included a stop to meet the son of an Indian judge who served on the Tokyo war tribunal and who had argued that Japan’s wartime leaders weren’t guilty. Mr. Kishi had praised the judge, Radhabinod Pal, for his “sense of justice” and “courage” in his prison journal.

A few months later, Mr. Abe resigned, with some voters wary of his steps to reopen Japan’s constitution.

In his second stint as prime minister, Mr. Abe has focused more heavily on economic policies, with mixed success. His Abenomics program has helped boost corporate profits and share prices.

His poll ratings have slipped considerably, however, as Japan has fallen into recession after an April tax increase.

By calling elections now, aides say, Mr. Abe hopes to lock in more time in office. It will also give him another chance to realize his grandfather’s aim of a more powerful Japan playing a bigger role in world politics.

In July, Mr. Abe’s cabinet approved a reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of allies such as the U.S. even if Japan itself isn’t attacked. Mr. Abe has signaled he wants to go further in the years ahead.

Write to Yuka Hayashi at yuka.hayashi@wsj.com