SINGAPORE – The Abe administration’s rejection of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s revisionist views has apparently eased U.S. concerns that Japan was giving China an easy opening to exploit and drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera’s dismissal Saturday of recent remarks by Hashimoto, co-leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), on wartime military brothels was a positive message to Washington before President Barack Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday and Saturday in California, the first U.S.-China summit since Xi became head of state in March.
A senior U.S. Defense Department official said Washington was “very supportive” of Onodera’s statement, which is considered a reaffirmation by the Abe government of remorse for “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused in Asia.
“We felt that it is a very strong statement, and he very clearly tied that to Japan’s role in the region,” the official said, citing Onodera’s reference to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aspiration to bring back “a strong Japan” backed by a sound economy and greater responsibility in regional security. “I think that was a very positive thing that we welcome.”
Rejecting Hashimoto’s claim that the military’s use of sex slaves during the war was “necessary” to maintain discipline among Japanese troops fighting in China and serving on the Korean Peninsula, Onodera said: “The Abe administration never commits to such remarks and recognition of history.”
Speaking at a regional security forum in Singapore, he said: “consecutive Japanese governments have humbly acknowledged such historical facts, expressed deep remorse and genuine apologies. Prime Minister Abe has also embraced the same position, which is shared by all Cabinet ministers, including myself.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who also attended the annual forum known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, shook hands with Onodera and said it was a good speech, according to a Japanese source.
Onodera’s speech came after former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Hashimoto’s remarks were “inane” and “harmful” both to the Japan-U.S. alliance and trilateral cooperation involving the two countries and South Korea, which suffered under Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
“Chinese go all around the region including the United States with the following message: You know, this government of Mr. Abe, they’re right-wing nationalists,” Armitage said in a May 30 speech in Tokyo, in an apparent reference to the upcoming U.S. trip by Xi.
U.S. congressmen slammed Hashimoto’s remarks as “contemptible and repulsive.” Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of California said May 15 that “Hashimoto’s comments demonstrate why a formal acknowledgment, apology and acceptance of historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner by the government of Japan is still necessary.”
In his speech Saturday, Onodera sought the international community’s understanding of debate in Japan on exercising the right of collective self-defense, saying such a move will help Japan make “a more proactive and creative contribution toward regional stability.”
Exercising the right would mean the Self-Defense Forces would aid an ally that comes under armed attack.
Chinese and South Korean delegates at the Singapore forum declined comment on the speech, saying they weren’t authorized to speak to the media. But they said whether Japan can regain trust will depend on its actions in the future.
Experts said China would not support Japan’s use of collective self-defense because deeper Japan-U.S. strategic cooperation at a time of the U.S. “rebalance” toward Asia — which it suspects is a U.S. attempt to contain a rising, assertive China — is against Beijing’s interests.
“I don’t think China welcomes a strong Japan,” said Andrei Chang, a Hong Kong-based military analyst. “China is alarmed by recent developments in Japan, such as the first increase in the defense budget in 11 years, a review of the national defense guidelines and debate over the right to collective self-defense.”
Abe has expressed his intention to revise the Constitution to position the SDF as a full military and allow them to engage in collective self-defense, which is now prohibited under the government’s interpretation of the Constitution.
“In terms of strategic stability in East Asia, it would be desirable to have a strong Japan, so that we can see a better (military) balance among major players such as the United States, China, Japan and Australia,” Chang said. “Japan and China should promote dialogue so as to reduce misunderstanding and avoid miscalculations.”
Analysts said Abe’s allusion to free Japan from its postwar order is intended to bolster the country’s position in the region by increasing cooperation with the United States and expanding the use of the SDF.
Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy research at the Tokyo Foundation, said he hopes South Korea will accept Onodera’s speech in a positive way.
“To better cope with contingencies on the Korea Peninsula, it would be in South Korea’s interest to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense for a firmer Japan-U.S. alliance,” Watanabe said. “But emotionally, South Korea has a feeling that Japan’s use of collective self-defense could lead to its militarization.
“The most effective way to dispel such concern is to show Japan’s humble recognition of history with a pledge to never return to the past,” he said. “In this sense, Defense Minister Onodera’s speech was very effective and powerful.”