When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travels to Washington this week for a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, his first job may be to convince the president he’s not a rightwing fanatic seeking confrontation in East Asia, but rather a calm partner who can work with the Americans to maintain peace and stability in the region.
Such fears partially stem from his last stint as prime minister.
In March 2007, Abe created an uproar by questioning the extent of the wartime Imperial Japanese Army’s involvement in recruiting sex slaves, known euphemistically in Japan as the “comfort women.” His comments sparked a war of words between rightwing politicians in Japan and human rights groups in the U.S. and South Korea.
By the time he visited Washington the following month, Abe was under great pressure to revise his statement. Backtracking, he told U.S. lawmakers that he felt sympathy toward the comfort women and that Japan would stand by an official apology it issued in 1993.
But in July 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Japan to formally apologize and accept historical responsibility for the Imperial army’s coercion of young women and girls into sexual slavery.
Hence, Abe’s return to power late last year was greeted with alarm by some U.S. media and human rights groups, who point out that he and most of his Cabinet are members of rightwing, nationalist groups espousing agendas that often deny Japan’s wartime atrocities.
The rising Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku Islands and the ongoing row between Tokyo and Seoul over the Takeshima islets have only added to their worries about Japan’s leadership.
In response, some Washington think tanks and U.S. experts on Japan, concerned about the impact of criticism on the two nations’ security treaty, have spent the past few weeks promoting the view that Abe is not a rightwing fanatic seeking confrontation, but rather an experienced politician who is far more careful now than he was in 2007.
Overcoming perceptions, real or imagined, in Washington will be of paramount importance to Abe because of the full summit agenda both leaders face. For Japan, clearly, security issues — especially those concerning China and North Korea, are a priority.
“I think (the upcoming summit) will have a bit different meaning than the usual Japan-U.S summits in terms of urgency and importance,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.
“While Sino-Japanese relations went sour and the U.S.-China relationship is becoming more tense, I also think the security alliance between Japan and the U.S. is being tested,” Kubo said.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida last month, warned China that the U.S. opposed any unilateral action to weaken Japan’s control over the Senkakus.
Kubo said Clinton’s warning would be stronger if Abe got a more solid statement from Obama.
However, with John Kerry replacing Clinton as secretary of state, Abe will first need to seek clarification on how U.S. policy toward China may shift. With Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense held up because of Republican opposition, Abe arrives in Washington at a time when Obama’s foreign policy team is in transition — which could make it difficult to get a bold statement on China.
Two areas Obama is likely to strongly press Abe on are relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, a U.S.-led free-trade framework.
Given strong Okinawan opposition to relocating Futenma within the prefecture, however, no progress is expected on the base issue.
The Obama administration also is aware that Abe faces opposition within his Liberal Democratic Party to the TPP and must proceed slowly.
But the TPP faces problems in the U.S. as well, where a broad coalition of labor unions, automakers, trade groups, local politicians and congressional representatives oppose the accord.
Paul Sracic, professor of political science at Youngstown State University in Ohio and a TPP supporter, said most public criticism comes from U.S. politicians who object to its secrecy. NGOs and congressional leaders have pushed the Obama administration to release the 600-page negotiating text, which is available to hundreds of corporate lobbyists.
“The TPP in general is almost never discussed by the U.S. media,” Sracic said. “There are groups like farming organizations and meat producers who are strong advocates for it. But if you did a poll about TPP, I’d be shocked if even a quarter of respondents knew what those three letters stand for.”
Sracic added that including Japan in the negotiations could create political problems for Obama and the Democrats.
“Should TPP negotiations expand to include Japan, opposition would be much more pronounced, particularly from Democratic senators from auto-manufacturing states.” he said. “If Obama was to submit the TPP, particularly with Japan as a member, to Congress, most of his support would likely come from Republicans.”
Summits offer leaders a chance to tackle a broad range of strategic and economically important issues. But they also touch on issues of personal importance to the leaders.
Abe is likely to seek Obama’s support for pressuring North Korea to account for Japanese citizens abducted by the hermit nation in the 1970s and ’80s.
But he, in turn, might find himself pressed on a different kind of abduction issue — that of children born to an American parent who were taken, often in defiance of U.S. law, by their Japanese parent back to Japan.
Abe plans to tell Obama that Japan will join the Hague Convention on cross-border parental abductions. But left-behind U.S. parents say that promise is now two years old and does nothing to allay their urgent concerns.
On Feb. 13, BACHome, a group of left-behind American fathers, wrote to Abe, seeking his support for short-term measures to allow access to U.S. children taken to Japan by estranged Japanese spouses.
“Our children have been, in most cases, completely cut off from their home country just like the Japanese nationals taken by the North Koreans between 1977 and 1983,” the letter said. “We expect immediate action to aid and complete the safe return to the United States all American children abducted to Japan, and that you will work to provide all American children abducted within Japan immediate and unfettered access to their U.S. parent.”
Despite the letter, as well as past support from Kerry, who was directly involved with the issue as a U.S. senator, BACHome spokesman Paul Toland is not optimistic the summit will produce a solution without Kerry leaning on Obama.
“Japan has offered no meaningful resolution to the nearly 400 cases abducted from the United States to Japan since 1994, and the U.S. has not imposed any serious consequences on Japan as a result,” Toland said. “If Kerry chooses to make this a major issue with Japan, it could make a difference.”