Saturday, May 18, 2013

Will history again trip up Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?

At Chidorigaifuchi
Issues of history have dominated the past few weeks of Japan's international relations. For Japan's leaders, they are defending the nation's honor, for all others Tokyo's inability to squarely confront its past undermines trust and distracts from the economy.

APP Senior Fellow William Brooks, who is an Adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, addresses the domestic repercussions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's focus on "correcting" the misperceptions of history in the essay below that first appeared in the Asahi Asia Japan Watch on May 7, 2013.

Dr. Brooks echoes The Economist's May 18th Cover Story "It's Japan." The editors are unsure if Abe is the economic modernizer, the internationalist, or the radical nationalist. The Prime Minister's emphasis on "backward-facing patriotism as a model for modern strength" and constitutional reform is troubling. Or as The Economist notes:
At best, all this could prove a distraction at a time when some structural-reform initiatives already appear to be running into the sands. At worst, it could endanger all reform by eroding the government’s popularity, at the same time increasing tensions with Japan’s neighbours. Far from having banished the ghosts of his past, as some of his advisers claim, the prime minister is in danger of summoning them up again.
More pointedly, The Economist's editors conclude
Mr Abe is right to want to awaken Japan. After the upper-house elections, he will have a real chance to do so. The way to restore Japan is to focus on reinvigorating the economy, not to end up in a needless war with China.

With the landslide victory of the Liberal Democratic Party in December, its president, Shinzo Abe, returned for the second time as prime minister, aiming to fix Japan’s perpetually ailing economy through dramatic policy measures, dubbed “Abenomics,” which were cheered by the markets and welcomed by the public.

As Abe’s popularity soared in the polls to a 70 percent or higher approval rating, it seemed the momentum would give his ruling party an easy win in the Upper House election in July. Abe also defied trade-protectionist sentiment even in his own party and wowed international opinion by making a bold decision for Japan to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations that would open the economy to what will become a huge free-trade bloc in the world.

Abe was lauded in Washington, too, by his promise of a strong national security agenda that would enhance Japan’s alliance with the United States. Washington hoped that finally, Japan had a strong leader that it needs to bring the country back on track, return stability to politics and restore Japan’s status as a “tier-one” level member in the global community.

But at the same time, the return of Abe to power has been accompanied by growing controversy due to his nationalistic agenda and revisionist views toward history.

His plan to drastically revise the Constitution, including the war-renouncing Article 9, has set off domestic alarms, even with the LDP’s coalition partner, the New Komeito. He also has upset Asian neighbors by questioning Japan’s wartime legacy and breaking his own taboo by letting Cabinet members visit Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are enshrined.

Abe left office in 2007 in a cloud over his handling of the war-guilt issue. Will history ultimately trip up Abe’s second try as prime minister?

Abe's Right-Turn Agenda Detours To Yasukuni
While the Japanese public welcomed the new prime minister, Abe was seen overseas in quite a different light. The Western media were especially critical. The Economist of Britain on Jan. 5, 2013, called Abe an “arch-nationalist” and predicted that his “appointment of a scarily right-wing cabinet bodes ill for the region.” The magazine noted “thirteen [members] support Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist think-tank that advocates a return to ‘traditional values’ and rejects Japan’s ‘apology diplomacy’ for its wartime misdeeds.”

Similar warnings about Abe’s nationalist roots appeared in major U.S. dailies, as well. This sparked a series of rebuttals in op-eds and commentaries from scholars and think-tanks seeing Abe instead as a pragmatic leader who had learned from his unsuccessful first term.

Such concerns seemed borne out when Abe soon began to make comments that were seen in the Western media as “exposing his true nationalist colors.” Abe talked of revising the statements of wartime apologies made by earlier administrations and, in a Diet reply, he questioned the definition of “aggression” to describe Japan’s wartime actions in Asia.

Although he and his Cabinet spokesman sought to assuage irate Korean and Chinese reactions by later assurances that past apologies would always be honored, the damage had been done.

Things did not stop there, however. Abe in his previous turn as prime minister was careful to avoid visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined. He was painfully aware of the trouble with China and Korea caused by the visits to Yasukuni of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and he desired above all to repair ties with those countries.

This time, however, Abe broke his old rule by allowing three of his Cabinet members, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, himself a former prime minister, to pay homage at Yasukuni during its April spring festival. Angry reactions swept across Korea and China, and scheduled high-level meetings were either postponed or canceled. Major Japanese dailies and the Western press slammed Abe. He may have miscalculated Korean and Chinese reactions, for it was clear from the start of his administration that he wanted to repair relations strained by territorial disputes. Although Abe himself did not visit the shrine, only sending a donation of a sacred plant, his allowing his deputy to pay homage at the shrine was to Asian eyes the equivalent of sending a proxy.

The impact of the Yasukuni visits has gone far beyond Asia. Abe was chastised for allegedly revealing his nationalist colors by editorials in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and other major Western dailies. The Financial Times stressed, “Yasukuni ... is irredeemably associated with the nationalist cult of emperor worship.” The New York Times charged: “Visits to Yasukuni … are often seen as proof that Japan remains unrepentant for its brutal wartime march across Asia.”

The Japanese government’s position, which under ordinary circumstances would be reasonable and understandable, is that how Japan mourns its war dead is not something that other countries can give orders on.

Such a stance may still resonate among U.S. officials, for it harks back to the Yasukuni visits of Koizumi during his tenure in office (2001-2006). Koizumi was careful always to state that his intention was to pay homage to the war dead, not to war criminals. But his actions, though certainly not personally linked to nationalism, roiled China and South Korea and wrecked relations with those countries.

Those who defend official visits to Yasukuni as no more than paying respect for the war dead are denying the reality that the shrine long ago has become hopelessly politicized as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past. The Showa emperor himself stopped going to the shrine decades ago when he found that war criminals had been enshrined there. Still, most Japanese these days are probably neutral about the shrine, seeing Yasukuni as just a place to go to pray for the war dead, perhaps their own relatives. They do not think they are praying for the war criminals enshrined there.

Neutralizing Yasukuni
There has been much talk over the years of separating the souls of the war criminals from Yasukuni and enshrining them elsewhere. Other suggestions have included establishing a secular war memorial where even a U.S. president could lay a wreath. Such talk has not led to any action, though one could persuasively argue that the 14 Class-A war criminals do not belong at Yasukuni anyway: They were never killed on the battlefield but were executed for sending millions to die in battle.

As Abe’s miscalculation shows, though, Yasukuni remains a potential lightning rod for trouble if officials believe that visiting there is just an act of respect for the war dead.

Yasukuni Adds To U.S. Security Concerns In The Region
When Yasukuni flared up again in April, Washington officials were likely more upset about the timing of the dispute than with the visits to the shrine by Cabinet ministers. Washington has become increasingly concerned about escalating tensions between Japan and China over the Senkakus, islands both countries claim. China’s maritime surveillance ships repeatedly intrude into Japanese waters near the isles, and earlier this year, a Chinese warship, locking its radar on a Japan Coast Guard vessel, was ready to fire.

Conflict could have ensued. Moreover, the isles have taken on an even more strategic significance when Beijing recently announced that the Senkakus were part of China’s “core interests,” ranking them with Tibet and Taiwan.

Adding nationalism to territorial and historical issues makes an extremely volatile mixture, and U.S. officials worry that in the case of China and the Senkakus, a military clash is not out of the question. In that case, the United States might be dragged into an unnecessary war.

America’s pivot to Asia is largely centered on protecting its maritime security interests in the region. In that connection, Washington would like Japan and China to find diplomatic ways to return relations to a more cooperative mode, putting the territorial issue on the back burner and toning down the historical rhetoric.

Japan's rocky relations with South Korea further complicate U.S. regional strategy. Washington expects trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea in dealing with North Korea’s dangerous nuclear and missile programs.

Officials are disappointed, too, that bilateral strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea, such as planned agreements for intelligence and materiel sharing, have been sidelined by the territorial row in 2012 and made even more remote by the tiff over history.

Moreover, the United States and Japan at this point cannot leverage cooperation from China in pressuring North Korea to reconsider its nuclear ambitions. As Japan becomes more isolated, another casualty is the loss of access to close consultations between Beijing and Seoul over the North Korea problem--a matter of direct national security interest for Tokyo.

Comfort Women Issue Could Roil U.S. Again
The comfort women issue--sex slaves used by the Japanese military in World War II--has the potential to flare up again, not only with Asian countries but also with the United States, if Abe makes good his oft-stated intention to review the 1993 Kono Statement, which admitted military involvement in the recruitment of women, mostly Koreans, to service Japanese soldiers at the war front.

A similar review of the 1995 Murayama Statement of apology for Japan’s wartime acts has also been suggested.

The comfort women issue became a bone of contention between the United States and Japan when Abe was prime minister for the first time. Congress was upset when the Abe government began to deny military involvement in that wartime system, and subsequently passed a resolution critical of Japan’s responses to date.

Americans view the comfort women’s plight as a humanitarian issue and expect Japan to do the right thing. Should the Abe administration, in its review of the Kono Statement, take the tack of again denying coercion and military involvement in this prostitution corps, it will find that the United States has joined the chorus of international criticism, too. Relations that started out so well early in the year could quickly cool. Such a scenario need not happen, though. Abe, who says he has learned from his mistakes in his first time in office, should apply that wisdom by turning over historical issues to historians to discuss and taking politics out of the act.

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