When it comes to Shinzo Abe, the Obama administration continues to walk a fine line, careful to stay clear of the Japanese prime minister’s nationalist agenda while embracing Japan as a critical ally. In the diplomatic and security mine field that is Northeast Asia, it is no easy task.
The US intelligence community recently assessed how best to contain the political damage caused by Abe encouraging inflammatory “revisionist” perspectives on World War II history. Details are still sketchy, given the sensitivity over leaks in Washington these days. But the intelligence assessment seems to be that Abe has gotten the stern message to constrain his rhetoric, and the US would do best at this point to selectively engage the prime minister’s pragmatic side while avoiding piling on with criticism of his ideological proclivities.
“Abe is not Hashimoto,” one key administration advisor argues, referencing the controversial Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who stunned many inside and outside of Japan recently with his claim that the forcible use of “comfort women” as sex slaves by the Imperial Army during World War II was an unfortunate but necessary aspect of war.
This selective-engagement approach can only work, however, as long as Abe effectively shelves some passionately-held beliefs, which history has shown him to have a hard time doing for any length of time.
THE ABE PARADOX: The dilemma facing the Obama administration was captured last week by Jeff Bader, formerly the top White House Asia specialist, in a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for a New American Security. Bader concurred with the view that because of the US “pivot” to Asia, it soon may no longer be possible for the US to stay neutral in territorial disputes or controversial clashes over history, especially when one side unilaterally makes moves to change the status quo in an unhelpful way. In that context, Bader said that Abe “has not exactly been adroit” in making “wobbly” statements on history. Bader expressed frustration that, on the one hand, Abe is taking positive action for Japan to be a “normal country” on trade and security policy, but on the other hand “there have been statements about aggression versus invasion, the Yasukuni visit, and crazy statements by Mayor Hashimoto about ‘comfort women’ sex slaves that create the worst possible environment for major debate for Japan’s security future.” If Abe or others in Japan deny history, and “we see more of the current sloppiness, then we are going to be more vocal,” Bader said.
With Abe’s tongue apparently tied for now, the Obama administration is working behind the scenes to restore some degree of diplomatic civility and genuine dialogue between Tokyo and Seoul. Specifically, Washington is pushing for a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts at the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting set for Brunei on July 1-2. This would be the first meeting between the current Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers. The South Korean minister, Yun Byung-Se, cancelled a scheduled trip to Tokyo in April in reaction to the visit to Yasukuni Shrine of over 160 LDP Diet members, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. Abe defended the visits.
SEOUL’S UPPER HAND: In recent days Yun has made some conciliatory gestures toward Tokyo, telling the national assembly that he was looking forward to a reduction in bilateral tension. But Seoul is operating with a strong diplomatic hand. President Park Geun-hye made a highly successful visit to Washington in April, which included a joint press conference with President Obama and an unusual speech to a joint session of the US Congress. Next week, Park will travel to Beijing for the first state visit to be hosted by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, since he took office in March.
By contrast, Abe met with arm’s distance treatment when he visited Washington in February. He has not yet met with China’s Xi nor Korea’s Park, and a visit of the latter to Tokyo any time soon seems highly-unlikely. And Abe could only watch and wonder when Obama and Xi held over 8 hours of talks in California earlier this month. Obama’s national security advisor Tom Donilon did not even heed Tokyo’s desire to stop in Japan after several days in Beijing to finalize plans for the Obama-Xi talks. And even though Obama called Abe after his talks with the Chinese leader, the real news would have been if the White House had not made the call.
In short, for all of Abe’s talk of bolstering Japan’s national security and standing in global affairs, he has managed mostly to temporarily sideline Japan to a kind of diplomatic penalty box.
It’s an awkward situation, especially at a time when trilateral security cooperation between Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul is so important. Even Beijing knows it is dangerous to be out of touch with Japan, and accepted a visit in mid-June by one of Abe’s top foreign policy advisors, Shotaro Yachi. In a speech in London this week, Abe expressed a desire to meet with China’s Xi.
To a large extent, the fledgling efforts underway to reduce some of the tensions in Northeast Asia rest on taking Abe and his colleagues at face value that the prime minister really has learned his lesson. Abe himself stated on May 15 that “my administration upholds the (Murayama) statement as a whole,” a reference to the 1995 statement in which then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a clear apology for Japan’s wartime aggression.
Abe’s chief cabinet secretary and close confidante (and fellow ‘revisionist’), Yoshihide Suga, was tabbed by Asahi Shimbun as the Abe administration’s self-appointed guardian against gaffes about Japan’s history, having warned cabinet members to carefully adhere to a unified, uncontroversial view of history. And Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera spent a good chunk of his time at the prestigious Shangri La security conference in Singapore earlier this month disputing the widespread “misperceptions” that Japan under Abe is “tilting toward the right.” He specifically disassociated the Abe administration from the “inappropriate remarks” made by Mayor Hashimoto concerning “comfort women.”
IS ABE TAMED?: The problem is that all of these efforts have only provided Abe with a conditioned reprieve, but not eliminated widespread concerns about him; understandably so. It was Abe himself who violated the Suga mandate against controversial comments about history by, among other things, telling the Diet in April that historians had yet to reach a unified definition of “aggression,” thereby reaffirming his often-voiced doubts about the 1995 Murayama statement. The Abe administration tried mightily to distance itself from Hashimoto, but it was Abe who, just last year, was actively pursuing a political alliance with Hashimoto. Abe himself has in the past signed onto statements that coincide with Hashimoto’s views. Abe has never ended his close association with arch-revisionist General Toshio Tamogami, who was sacked in 2008 as chief of Japan’s air force after publishing an essay that justified Japan’s aggression in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps most importantly, Abe has steadfastly refused to repeat the actual wording of the 1995 Muryama statement, especially the critical word “aggression” (shinryaku), despite his claim to adhere to the statement as a whole. By contrast, as pointed out by Japanologist Karl Gustafsson, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was criticized for his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, but he never questioned the clarity of the Murayama Statement, and on solemn occasions cited specific segments, including the word “aggression.”
UNHAPPY KANTEI: Abe is not happy about the criticism coming his way, from Americans and Japanese alike. Veteran Kantei watchers report that the prime minister resents being “told” what he can and cannot do, or can and cannot say. From Abe’s perspective, he has been showing restraint by not undertaking a review of the 1993 “Kono Statement” on “comfort women,” and by not visiting Yasukuni Shrine. (Abe and many of his co-thinkers harbor a visceral abhorrence of the Kono Statement, as its issuance in 1993 by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono coincided with United Nations findings that Serb forces in the Bosnia War had systematically used rape as an instrument of war. They argue that Kono had, in effect, besmirched the reputation of forces of the Japanese Imperial Army with the implication that they had acted in a similar fashion in China in World War II.)
Abe showed his thin skin two weeks ago when he took to his personal Facebook page to attack Hitoshi Tanaka, a respected retired Foreign Ministry official who had suggested in a newspaper interview that Japan under Abe was shifting to the political right. “Because of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remarks about the definition of ‘invasion’ and denials over leaving the 1995 Murayama and 1993 Kono statements alone,” Tanaka said, “the sense that Japan is shifting to the right has been spreading.”
Abe wrote that “He (Tanaka) is not qualified to talk about diplomacy.” It is virtually unheard of for a sitting prime minister to make such a derogatory comment in public.
Abe did not respond to what may have been a more telling comment by Tanaka. In a recent essay, Tanaka wrote that Abe has contributed to a rise in tensions in Northeast Asia. Tanaka wrote: “Many observers hoped that the debut of new leaders in China, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea – and a fresh electoral mandate for the US president – would provide an opportunity for a reset in regional relations. However, it appears that this chance is being squandered.”
It’s a view echoed by none other than former Prime Minister Murayama himself, in a June 18 interview with South Korean daily Joonang Ilbo that went little-noticed in Japan. Murayama strongly criticized Abe’s views of history, and said: “The United States does not want Japan to have conflict and be isolated from other nations regarding such an issue.”
Looking ahead, a big question is just which Abe will emerge from the upcoming Upper House elections, in which the prime minister’s Liberal Democratic Party looks set to garner a significant win. Will it be the pragmatic Abe or the nationalist Abe? Will an LDP electoral victory embolden Abe to stick to his principles and visit Yasukuni Shrine in August?
Japan expert Bill Grimes of Boston University put the dilemma this way: “The stronger Abe is domestically, the more likely he is to be his true self – Abe as Abe. From the US perspective, we really don’t want Abe to be Abe. If Abe is politically free to be Abe, he is liable to try to change the Murayama Statement or take other actions that are almost guaranteed to greatly complicate diplomacy in the region.”