NEW YORK – Gerald Curtis, a veteran scholar of Japanese politics, has predicted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take a pragmatic approach to running his government, but cautioned that the “comfort woman” issue has significant bearing not just for Tokyo’s relations with its Asian neighbors, but also its ties with Washington.
In a recent interview with Kyodo News, the Columbia University professor said he gives Abe a lot of credit for his political strategy of focusing attention on reinvigorating the anemic economy, with the aim of scoring a victory in the Upper House election this summer.
“I think he’s learned a lot of lessons from his first unsuccessful year,” Curtis said, referring to Abe’s relatively brief one-year stint from September 2006 as prime minister. Abe’s first term was highlighted by ideology, with a push for constitutional reform and patriotic education.
This time, Curtis said, Abe is “very clever” in stating that his focus is on the economy, putting those ideological long-term issues on the back burner.
Curtis characterized Abe as “very ideological, rightwing” but also very pragmatic and realistic, like his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister in the late 1950s.
“I think that pragmatism will keep his ideological views from becoming too dominant,” Curtis said.
Curtis described the Japan-U.S. relationship as “strong,” dismissing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s criticism that the relationship weakened under the previous government of the Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power until December.
However, despite the strength of the relationship, and the fact the U.S. administration may be happy to see “the LDP and a lot of people it knows well back in power,” U.S. officials are “very nervous about Abe’s rightwing views on history,” especially in relations with South Korea, which is also a U.S. ally, Curtis said.
Many Japanese might not grasp the depth of emotion toward the wartime sex slave issue, not just in South Korea, but in the United States, Curtis said, describing it as a “hot button issue.”
Curtis said if Abe were to rescind the so-called Kono statement, which acknowledged and apologized for the Imperial Japanese Army’s involvement in coercing women and girls into sexual servitude, “that would be a real problem for the U.S.”
Touching on Abe’s upcoming trip to Washington, Curtis cited “nervousness” in the U.S. government about Abe.
“I’m sure when Abe comes to Washington, (U.S. President Barack) Obama will be interested in what he says about these kinds of issues,” Curtis said. He added that the U.S. president wants to make sure Tokyo will not “unnecessarily” create trouble in its relations with Seoul or Beijing.
On the handling of the Senkaku Islands row that has damaged Sino-Japanese relations, Curtis said Abe will be cautious about trying not to worsen the situation but “neither will he back down from controlling them.”
The question is how much more pressure China will put on Japan, he noted.
If the Chinese increase the pressure even more, and if Abe remains cautious by not escalating the problem, then “the U.S. will be a strong supporter of Japan,” Curtis said.