During his year-long stint as Prime Minister in 2006-2007, Abe was known for his nationalist rhetoric and advocacy for more muscular positions on defense and security matters. Some of Abe’s positions—such as changing the interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow for Japanese participation in collective self-defense—were largely welcomed by U.S. officials eager to advance military cooperation. Other statements, however, suggest that Abe embraces a revisionist view of Japanese history that rejects the narrative of imperial Japanese aggression and victimization of other Asians. He has been involved with groups arguing that Japan has been unjustly criticized for its behavior as a colonial and wartime power.
Among the positions advocated by these groups, such as Nippon Kaigi Kyokai, are that Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers, that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by Imperial Japanese troops during the 1937 “Nanjing massacre” were exaggerated or fabricated. Historical issues have long colored Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, who remain resentful of Japan’s occupation and belligerence during the World War II period. Abe’s selections for his Cabinet appear to reflect these views, as he chose a number of politicians well-known for advocating nationalist, and in some cases ultra-nationalist views.
The previous DPJ government adopted a more conciliatory view of Japan’s past and worked to mend historical wounds with South Korea and China. In August 2010, the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan renewed Japan’s apology for its treatment of Koreans during colonial rule, and offered to return historical documents and other artifacts taken from Korea. Until the end of their time in power, DPJ leaders also avoided visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine that honors Japan’s wartime dead and includes several Class A war criminals. Visits to the shrine by LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had severely strained Tokyo’s relationships with Beijing and Seoul in the early and mid-2000s.
Abe last visited the Yasukuni Shrine in October 2012, after he was elected president of the LDP but before the parliamentary elections that made him Prime Minister. Many analysts say that Abe’s re-ascension to the premiership risks inflaming regional relations, which could disrupt regional trade, threaten security cooperation among U.S. allies, and further exacerbate already tense relations with China. Abe is under pressure from the Japan Restoration Party, a new fiercely nationalist party that won the third largest number of seats in the Diet. On the other hand, during his last stint as Prime Minister, Abe successfully repaired ties with South Korea and China and is regarded by some observers as a pragmatic operator. Since becoming prime minister, he has not repeated his calls while in opposition to station Japanese civilians on the Senkaku Islands and to designate a national “Takeshima Day” to promote Japan’s assertion of sovereignty over the Dokdo/Takeshima island that is controlled by South Korea. Although relations with China are far more problematic now, he recently sent an envoy to reach out to the new government in South Korea, raising hopes that relations will not deteriorate significantly.
Comfort Women Issue
Abe’s statements on the so-called “comfort women”—sex slaves used by the Japanese imperial military during its conquest and colonization of several Asian countries in the 1930s and 1940s—have been criticized by other regional powers and the U.S. House of Representatives in a 2007 resolution. Abe has suggested that his government might consider revising a 1993 official Japanese apology for its treatment of these women, a move that would be sure to degrade Tokyo’s relations with South Korea and other countries.
In the past, Abe has supported the claims made by many on the right in Japan that the women were not directly coerced into service by the Japanese military. When he was Prime Minister in 2006-2007, Abe voiced doubts about the validity of the 1993 “Kono Statement,” an official statement issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that apologized to the victims and admitted responsibility by the Japanese military. As the U.S. House of Representatives considered H.Res. 121, calling on the Japanese government to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility” for forcing young women into military prostitution, Abe appeared to soften his commentary and asserted that he would stand by the statement. The House later overwhelmingly endorsed the resolution. Then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura had been leading the movement to revise the statement; Abe recently appointed him Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.
The issue of the so-called comfort women has gained visibility in the United States, due primarily to Korean-American activist groups. These groups have pressed successfully for the erection of monuments commemorating the victims, passage of a resolution on the issue by the New York State Senate, and the naming of a city street in the New York City borough of Queens in honor of the victims. In addition, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly instructed the State Department to refer to the women as “sex slaves,” rather than the euphemistic term “comfort women.”
U.S. World-War II-Era Prisoners of War (POWs)
For decades, U.S. soldiers who were held captive by Imperial Japan during World War II have sought official apologies from the Japanese government for their treatment. A number of Members of Congress have supported these campaigns. The brutal conditions of Japanese POW camps have been widely documented.  In May 2009, Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki attended the last convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor to deliver a cabinet-approved apology for their suffering and abuse. In 2010, with the support and encouragement of the Obama Administration, the Japanese government financed a Japanese/American POW Friendship Program for former American POWs and their immediate family members to visit Japan, receive an apology from the sitting Foreign Minister and other Japanese Cabinet members, and travel to the sites of their POW camps. Annual trips were held in 2010, 2011, and 2012.  It is unclear whether the Abe government will continue the program. It is also unclear if Abe and other LDP politicians’ suggestions that past Japanese apologies should be reworded or retracted include the apologies to the U.S. POWs.
In the 112th Congress, three resolutions—S.Res. 333, H.Res. 324, and H.Res. 333—were introduced thanking the government of Japan for its apology and for arranging the visitation program.  The resolutions also encouraged the Japanese to do more for the U.S. POWs, including by continuing and expanding the visitation programs as well as its World War II education efforts. They also called for Japanese companies to apologize for their or their predecessor firms’ use of un- or inadequately compensated forced prison laborers during the war.
 By various estimates, approximately 40% percent held in the Japanese camps died in captivity, compared to 1%-3% of the U.S. prisoners in Nazi Germany’s POW camps. Thousands more died in transit to the camps, most notoriously in the 1942 “Bataan Death March,” in which the Imperial Japanese military force-marched almost 80,000 starving, sick, and injured Filipino and U.S. troops over 60 miles to prison camps in the Philippines. For more, see CRS Report RL30606, U.S. Prisoners of War and Civilian American Citizens Captured and Interned by Japan in World War II: The Issue of Compensation by Japan, by Gary Reynolds, currently out of print but available from the co-authors of this report. Estimates of the death rates in German prison camps for POWs are in the low single digits, compared to rates near 40% for Imperial Japanese camps.
 For more on the program, see http://www.us-japandialogueonpows.org/. Since the mid-1990s, Japan has run similar programs for the POWs of other Allied countries.
 S.Res. 333 (Feinstein) was introduced and passed by unanimous consent on November 17, 2011. H.Res. 324 (Honda) and H.Res.333 (Honda) were introduced on June 22, 2011, and June 24, 2011, respectively, and referred to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.