Friday, February 22, 2013

Abe's twisted approach to trust

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is not trusted in Washington. Although he pledges to enhance the security relationship with the United States, his desire to revise Japan’s peace constitution and his historical revisionism regarding World War II generate real doubt about both his sincerity and his effectiveness. In his meeting today with US President Barak Obama, Abe will need to work hard and move out of his comfort zone to counter the skepticism that he himself has created.

Policymakers in Washington worry that his bellicose language and history denials will antagonize other American friends in Asia and complicate if not erode regional cooperation. They worry that his emphasis on undoing Japan’s American-inspired constitution and forcing patriotic education will undermine Japan as East Asia’s model of liberal democracy. And they worry he is not leader enough to move beyond his narrow interests and beliefs.

If he can, Abe does have an opportunity to strengthen the US-Japan alliance at its roots. It is also one that can provide a model of reconciliation with Japan’s neighbors.  It is an opportunity that reinforces a successful new effort to deal directly and sensitively with Imperial Japan's atrocities committed during the War.

In the waning days of the last LDP administration, on May 30, 2009, Japanese Ambassador to the United States Fujisaki Ichiro traveled to the last meeting of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) and offered Japan’s apology to the surviving POWs for their maltreatment. All the elderly men in the room had survived torture, starvation, disease, humiliation, and slave labor as Japanese POWs.

The former POWs do not ask for compensation from the Japanese companies that benefited from their forced labor. To them, compensation is an official apology that acknowledges their dignity and remembers their history.

The Japanese government, encouraged by the U.S. government, then took the next important step in the reconciliation process and offered a visitation program to former POWs who are able to travel to Japan. Thus far, there have been three trips. In most cases, the Japanese companies at the former POW camp sites welcomed the men and their caregivers warmly.

Last week, the ADBC Memorial Society that represents surviving POWs, their families, and descendants sent a letter to the State Department expressing concern that the Abe Administration might end this remarkable visitation program. The visits have quieted nightmares and replaced bitterness with goodwill for POWs and descendants alike. Both the POW families and the U.S. government want the program continued.  

With two members of his cabinet from families involved in the use of POW slave labor—Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro (Aso Group) and Agriculture Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa (Ube Industries)—Abe is in a unique position to extend and enhance this visitation program. He can expand it to include widows and descendants on the trips to Japan, research on the POW experience, placement of memorials, preservation of records, and education on human rights.

By showing his understanding of the pain inflicted on soldiers of what is now Japan’s closest ally, Abe can strengthen bilateral relations at its fundamental level. He engenders trust among the Americans tasked with protecting Japan by honoring their veterans. And he signals to Japan’s other wartime victims that meaningful reconciliation is possible.

Prime Minister Abe brings to Washington promises to increase the material strength of the U.S.-Japan Alliance. This is not enough. He also needs to reassure Americans that he will not inflame regional sensibilities or upend the intent of Japan’s peace Constitution.  These are elements of regional security as well, which cannot be ignored.

Mindy Kotler
Asia Policy Point

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