Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to the State Department on Friday, with the two diplomats reiterating the fundamental importance of the US-Japan security alliance to stability in Northeast Asia. Kerry in particular emphasized the “iron-clad” nature of US security commitments to Japan.
The more telling aspect of the Kerry-Kishida meeting however is what they did not do: take questions from assembled reporters, enabling them to avoid any public airing of troubling, if muffled, disputes that emerged in recent weeks.
Kishida also met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Friday’s meetings marked the highest-level face-to-face contact between Washington and Tokyo since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the conflict-ridden Yasukuni Shrine late last year, infuriating many foreign policy specialists in Washington, and further complicating an already rancorous relationship with South Korea.
China has tenaciously exploited Abe’s Yasukuni visit to dampen criticism of its own attempts at intimidation in East Asia, and to undermine somewhat Japan’s claim to the moral high-ground in a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, south of Okinawa.
Vice President Joe Biden is particularly angry about the Yasukuni visit. The US vice president made a six-day visit to Northeast Asia in early December, stopping in Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul. The visit was designed in part to promote improved Japan-ROK ties, including an effort to broker a meeting between Abe and ROK President Park Geun-hye. Abe has not met with either Park or China’s President Xi Jinping since taking office in December 2012.
The Biden-Abe talks
Accounts differ as to exactly what transpired concerning Yasukuni in Biden’s separate talks with Abe and Park. At a minimum, Biden left Tokyo under the impression that Abe would not be visiting the controversial shrine. The Vice President’s office has tacitly confirmed that the vice president conveyed that impression to President Park. Like most US officials, Biden was convinced that a Yasukuni visit by Abe would greatly impede prospects for effective strategic coordination between Tokyo and Seoul.
High-ranking Korean officials report that President Park, while not opposed in principle to a meeting with Abe, was concerned that the Japanese premier would follow-up with a knock-on visit to Yasukuni or a provocative statement about wartime history, leaving Seoul looking like a diplomatic chump.
By the time Biden returned to Washington, he was aware that his mission to improve Japan-ROK relations had failed. On December 10, the US deputy chief of mission in Tokyo, Kurt Tong, conveyed to some of Abe’s top aides the concerns in Washington that a Yasukuni visit by Abe would unnecessarily cause deeper tensions with Beijing and Seoul.
On December 12, Biden himself phoned Abe, and in a lengthy, tense conversation pressed the prime minister to not visit Yasukuni. Sankei Shimbun on Janaury 30, citing unnamed “government sources,” provided a detailed account of the conversation – an account the vice president’s office does not dispute.
(Insiders in Tokyo, citing the close ties between Sankei and Abe, believe the account of the conversation comes directly from Abe himself – an assessment shared by key US officials.)
In their conversation, Biden said to Abe: “I told President Park that ‘I don’t think Mr. Abe will visit Yasukuni Shrine.’ If you indicate you will not visit the shrine, I think Ms. Park will agree to meet you.’”
Abe has long been incensed about what he considers American hectoring against his nationalist convictions, and he told Biden that he intended to visit Yasukuni at some point.
Exactly two weeks later, on December 26, Abe made a visit to Yasukuni that until the last minute had been shrouded in secrecy from all but his closest aides.
The visit confirmed the worst fears of ROK President Park, and undermined Vice President Biden’s credibility.
Sankei’s “government source” continued with additional comments dripping with disparagement toward the Obama administration. “The US does not understand that Japan has not fought a war with the ROK, and the ROK actually has nothing to do with the Yasukuni issue…We understand the ROK better than the US does. President Park Geun-hye’s first priority is the comfort women issue. Refraining from visiting Yasukuni will not improve relations.”
Reflecting Abe’s view, the Sankei writers added: “The Obama administration, which has overreacted to the Yasukuni visit and even asked Japan to exercise restraint, has not done anything about the ROK’s escalating anti-Japan actions… The US’s ‘double standards’ may ultimately contribute to the aggravation of Japan-ROK ties.”
Little wonder then that the ROK’s Park wants Abe to demonstrate his personal sincerity about past Japanese government apologies for wartime aggression and cruelty toward ‘comfort women,’ before any talks can take place. Abe insists on no preconditions.
Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is not the only source of tension between Washington and Tokyo these days. Controversy is swirling around three top administrators of national broadcaster NHK appointed by Abe late last year. Each has expressed incendiary views on wartime history matters that have long been contained to Japan’s right wing fringe, but which the Abe bandwagon has steered into the mainstream.
Katsuto Momii, the new chairman of NHK, suggested at his inaugural press conference that the Japanese military’s wartime system of “comfort stations” that coerced women to provide sexual “services” for troops was common among the military of other warring nations. He also labeled “puzzling” the demands from South Korea for compensation for the abused women. Protests forced Momii to label his statements “inappropriate,” but with no evidence he had changed his views.
The US embassy in Tokyo denied Momii’s accusation, saying that his “apparent belief regarding US practices is incorrect.”
Momii had barely “withdrawn” his statement when a new NHK governor, Naoki Hyakuta, publicly charged that US authorities had fabricated war crimes charges against Japan’s wartime leaders as a way to cover-up US atrocities of that period. Hyakuta, who loudly asserts in public that the 1937 Nanking Massacre “never happened,” enthusiastically backed former Air Force Chief of Staff Toshio Tamogami in today’s vote for governor of Tokyo. Tamogami, with whom Abe has long been associated, argues that Japan did not “invade” China, legally annexed Korea, and was tricked into war by the United States.
On Friday, the State Department issued a statement to Time magazine via the US Embassy in Tokyo, calling Hyakuta’s charges “preposterous,” and urging “people in positions of responsibility in Japan and elsewhere” to “avoid comments that inflame tensions in the region.”
By contrast, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has defended the right of NHK executives to hold personal opinions.
More recently, Mainichi Shimbun reported that another NHK board member appointed by Abe, Michiko Hasegawa, wrote a paper last October defending the 1993 ritual suicide of a right-wing extremist in the lobby of liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Looking ahead, the Obama administration will have to struggle with a double dilemma: How to support an incremental, natural evolution of Japan’s defense posture without appearing to back Abe’s nationalist agenda; and, how to distance the US from Abe’s ultra-nationalism without opening a rift that could be exploited by an increasingly assertive China.
The issue will take on greater urgency as the clock winds down to April, when President Obama is likely to visit Tokyo as part of a broader visit to the region.
For now, Washington is taking every opportunity to press Tokyo to improve relations with South Korea, in the hope this will compel Abe to set aside his nationalist proclivities and focus instead on the trilateral US-Japan-ROK strategic interest in deterring North Korea and engaging China from a position of enhanced alliance strength.
Still, US officials are not entirely comfortable with the prospect of Obama visiting Tokyo with the current double-dilemma still in place. Last October, Secretary of State Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried to dissuade Abe from visiting Yasukuni by very publicly visiting Chidorigafuchi, Japan’s cemetery for unknown war-dead.
Without a subtle but unmistakable diplomatic rebuke of the spreading narrow nationalism in Japan, an Obama visit would run the risk of allowing Abe to continue setting the regional agenda, and the US losing considerable credibility in Beijing and Seoul.