OSAKA – Sunday’s overwhelming victory by the Liberal Democratic Party has created a dilemma for the United States, which wants closer economic and military ties with Tokyo even as it fears that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet now have free reign to pursue a hard-line diplomatic stance that will damage U.S. interests in East Asia.
Concern about Abe in Washington was present well before Sunday’s Upper House election. A May report by the Congressional Research Service went so far as to warn that due to tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. could find itself taking sides in a shooting war, while Abe’s views on history, the report said, were not good for the U.S.
“Comments and actions on controversial historical issues by Prime Minister Abe and his Cabinet have raised concern that Tokyo could upset regional relations in ways that hurt U.S. interests. His approach to issues like the so-called ‘comfort women’ sex slaves from the World War II era, history textbooks, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, and statement on a territorial dispute with South Korea will be closely monitored by Japan’s neighbors as well as the U.S.,” the report said.
Washington’s worries about Abe were reflected in comments by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, also the co-leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), that the comfort women system had been a wartime necessity. The strong criticism of Hashimoto by the State Department was seen as indirect U.S. criticism of similar comments by Abe and some members of his Cabinet.
At a news conference in Washington on Monday, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, welcomed Sunday’s results.
“It’s true Japan faces a range of thorny problems with some of its neighbors,” he said. “These are problems that sometimes seem to get worse and other times seem to get better. We hope that all leaders and the public will be guided by a sense of wisdom, of shared interest, and will take actions and decisions with a view to the future.
“With respect to specific problems, including the issue of the territorial dispute in the East China Sea, the U.S. is very consistent and very clear, both with Japan and with China. We don’t take a position on the substance of the territorial disputes. We continue to strongly encourage a process, a diplomatic process that can manage differences in a way that will reduce tensions,” Russel said.