With the New Year holidays over, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces the challenge of healing Japan-U.S. ties strained under Japan’s previous administration and of improving ties with China and South Korea, soured by various territorial disputes.
Amid concerns over the perceived rightwing shift in Japanese politics, other parts of Asia, with bitter memories of Japan’s atrocities during the war, are closely watching the Abe government, which includes many conservative-leaning lawmakers.
Particularly worrying for them is Abe’s thinly veiled desire to rewrite the pacifist Constitution and to allow the Self-Defense Forces to exercise the right to collective self-defense, which is banned under the government’s interpretation of the war-renouncing supreme charter.
For now, though, Abe appears to be playing it safe by sending emissaries to China and South Korea and refraining from provocative events.
Tokyo is feuding with Beijing over the ownership of the Japanese-administered Senkakus, which China in recent years has claimed as the Diaoyu. It is also feuding with Seoul over the ownership of South Korea-controlled Takeshima, a pair of outcroppings South Korea calls Dokdo.
Experts say that while these early steps have temporarily eased concerns in China and South Korea, it remains to be seen how long the Abe government can continue on this path of temporary restraint without riling voters as the Upper House election approaches in summer.
“I recognize that the first step in turning Japan’s foreign and security policy around is reinforcing our ‘kizuna’ — our bonds of friendship — once more under the Japan-U.S. alliance, which is the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy,” Abe said in his first news conference as prime minister late last month.
The challenge then, experts say, would be what Abe can tell Obama about Japan’s stance on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks, an initiative vehemently opposed by many LDP supporters in the agricultural sector.
In its campaign pledge for the Dec. 16 House of Representatives election, the LDP said it will oppose Japan’s participation in the TPP talks if the country is required to accept unconditional tariff elimination.
“The ‘gift’ that the United States expects from Japan at the summit talks in January is perhaps not the exercising of the right to collective self-defense, which Mr. Abe has asserted and the U.S. side has called for,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank.
“It is rather steps to improve relations with China and South Korea, and Japan’s participation in the TPP talks,” he wrote in the latest edition of Kyodo Weekly, noting Japan needs to join the talks to rejuvenate its moribund economy and regain influence in the region.
The Abe government must also confront the contentious plan to build a new U.S. Marine Corps air base on Okinawa Island, a project strongly opposed by many residents who bristle at the concentration of U.S. military facilities in the prefecture.
While the Abe government appears to have carefully avoided bringing potentially divisive diplomatic issues to the forefront, experts say pitfalls abound as Japan seeks to improve ties with China and South Korea.
One of the pitfalls, they say, is the issue of Korean and other women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during the war, with China and South Korea watching carefully to see how Abe’s government handles the issue regarding, to use the Japanese euphemism, the “comfort women.”
As recently as September, Abe advocated reviewing a 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledged the Japanese military’s responsibility in the “forced recruitment” of the females into sexual servitude and that apologized to the victims.
Beijing and Seoul were bemused when Tokyo’s top spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said last month that it is “desirable for experts and historians to study” the “Kono statement” while leaving it unclear whether the Abe government upholds it.
“The greatest concern in South Korea is whether the Abe government will review the Kono statement at exactly the time when South Korea is calling on Japan to resolve the comfort women issue,” said Lee Jong Won, a professor of East Asian relations at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies.
Some observers speculate that the Abe government is planning to engage in constitutional changes and other controversial issues if the LDP-led coalition, which regained its majority in the Lower House election in December, wins back a majority in the Upper House, a prospect certain to worry Japan’s Asian neighbors.