[Ed: This is the second in a series of interviews on US-Japan relations in the wake of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last December to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.]
Weston S. Konishi is the Washington, DC-based Chief Operating Officer of Peace Winds America, a disaster preparedness organization facilitating greater coordination between governments, militaries, NGOs, and the private sector throughout the Asia-Pacific region. A specialist in Asia and U.S.-Japan relations, Mr. Konishi has spent over fifteen years in the non-profit and think tank arenas. He is the author and editor of numerous books and publications on Asia-Pacific security issues. From 2010 to 2013, Mr. Konishi served as director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA). Before joining IFPA, he was an adjunct fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, D.C. In 2009, he served as an analyst in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), authoring Japan’s Historic 2009 Elections: Implications for U.S. Interests, the first report to Congress focusing on the Democratic Party of Japan. From 2007 to 2008, Mr. Konishi was a Council on Foreign Relations/Hitachi International Affairs fellow in Japan, conducting research on Japanese foreign and defense policies at the Tokyo-based Institute for International Policy Studies (IIPS) and the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS).
Dispatch Japan: Looking back on Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, how to you evaluate the American response?
Konishi: It was appropriate: subtle, yet a pretty clear shot across the bow. The Obama administration had made a lot of behind-the-scenes efforts to convey its feelings about a potential Yasukuni visit. Clearly that did not sink in with Abe.
The statement still resonates. On the one hand, Japan is very important as an ally. On the other hand, the US view is straightforward that visits to Yasukuni and controversial statements on history strain relations in Northeast Asia.
Dispatch Japan: The US did not criticize the visits to Yasukuni made by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. What makes things different now?
Konishi: The stakes are higher. The territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands has flared up dangerously. Relations with South Korea are on edge over the Takeshima dispute, among other things. Overall, regional tensions are at a high point for recent years, which made the Yasukuni visit particularly problematic.
The hope in Washington had been that a more pragmatic side of Abe would prevail, and that he would take the regional political situation into consideration.
That made the Yasukuni visit, and subsequent statements by NHK officials and others in Tokyo all the more disappointing.
Dispatch Japan: Why is it so troubling to Washington?
Konishi: The developments in Tokyo have complicated the US strategy of “rebalancing” toward Asia. The US would like Japan to be in the vanguard of the rebalance. Japan remains the top US ally in the region, so it is important that Japan’s regional relationships be more positive and stable. That would facilitate the carrying-out of US objectives, but that is not the situation now, which explains why the US reaction now is so different than a decade ago.
Dispatch Japan: Has Abe misjudged the US?
Konishi: Many people in Japan believe he did, especially the idea that the progress achieved last December on Okinawa base issues would tend to mute US criticism of the Yasukuni visit and other history-related developments.
Abe appears to have developed a false sense of confidence that no matter what he did – especially visiting Yasukuni -- the US would stand by him. Remember that last time he was in office, Abe received a lot of domestic criticisms for “failure to read the political winds” – kuuki ga yomenai.
A similar dynamic seems to be at play. Abe is not reading the strategic and political winds, which is rocking the boat with Washington.
Dispatch Japan: What is motivating Abe: ideological conviction, or strategic concerns such as the rise of China or US reliability?
Konishi: Foremost is deep personal conviction. The prime minister has deeply-held beliefs about Japan’s behavior during World War II, and his perception that Japan has had to cow-tow to neighboring countries in the postwar period. He has a lot of resentments about that.
Abe also underestimates the extent to which history issues can resonate in the US. The tension is not limited to relations with Japan’s neighbors.
I don’t think the Yasukuni visit or Abe’s stances on history issues stem from domestic political calculations. He does not get much of a bump in voter support. Some analysts say he adopts these positions to mollify his domestic political base. But Abe in many ways personifies his base. And there is no groundswell of support for his policies regarding history or visits to Yasukuni.
There is a loud, vociferous minority of right-wingers in Japan. But they do not represent a growing constituency. Japan’s mainstream is still relatively moderate. If anything, the mainstream is disappointed with Abe’s history-related views.
I also do not think the prime minister has thought through the strategic implications of his nationalism; no grand design. I don’t see any kind of message to Washington that Japan is seeking greater independence from the US in defense and foreign policy.
But Abe does deeply resent that, in his view, Japan has had to repeatedly back down on history issues in relations with China and Korea. And he is riding an “apology fatigue” sentiment that is prevalent in the mainstream, not simply in rightist circles.
To that extent, Abe does have real objectives. He wants to change the way Japanese view themselves and their country. He wants the Japanese people to demonstrate more backbone in historical disputes.
Dispatch Japan: How is this going to play out in regional dynamics?
Konishi: We are in for a very rough ride. There seems to be no end in sight in what already is a very precipitous decline in Japan-Korea relations.
To me, this is most troubling. There is so much potential for cooperation between Japan and Korea. They have so many common strategic, diplomatic, and economic interests. There is so much lost because of the tensions.
That’s not to downplay the importance of Japan’s relations with China. They are the two giants of the region. But the relationship is always going to be complicated, with a good deal of bumpiness almost built-in.
Beijing and Seoul are not accustomed to Tokyo pushing back on territorial and history issues, or Tokyo blatantly ignoring their concerns about visits to Yasukuni Shrine.
Meanwhile, Washington will continue to be concerned about being drawn into Japan’s disputes with its neighbors. The US will try to keep the disputes at an arm’s distance, but that will be seen in Tokyo as a lack of commitment to Japan on Washington’s part.
There will be continuing spillover on the US-Japan alliance.
Dispatch Japan: The US is walking a fine line: don’t empower Abe, but limit the space between Washington and Tokyo that China might try to exploit.
Konishi: Any attempts to bypass Abe would likely exacerbate anxieties in Japan. Up to now, a lot of messages have been delivered to Abe behind closed doors. Washington may have to start being more direct, and more explicit in conveying our concerns to Tokyo. President Obama should use his upcoming visit to Japan to discuss his grand strategy for the region with Abe, while making it clear to the prime minister that further transgressions into historical controversies will impede both allies’ efforts to implement that strategy over time. I think the US needs to be very careful about wading into Japan’s historical disputes more directly, but, put in a strategic context, Washington will stand a better chance of convincing Abe to focus on the big picture rather than on his personal convictions about the past.