Maehara urges Abe to better ties with U.S., Seoul


Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara is calling for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to work toward more stable relations with the United States and South Korea after rifts over historical disputes.

Maehara, a prominent member of the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, said that close allies Washington and Tokyo will inevitably have disagreements but should address them privately.

“Behind the scenes, we may fiercely argue with each other. But still we should showcase our strong bond to outsiders,” Maehara said Wednesday in Washington at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

“We have to understand precisely which country would benefit from a worsening of the Japan-U.S. relationship,” he said in a veiled reference to China.

Abe, a conservative who led his bloc to crush the DPJ in the last two national elections, paid a pilgrimage Dec. 26 to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead as well as Class-A war criminals, and which China and South Korea associate with Japan’s past militarism.

The United States, in a rare rebuke of Tokyo, said it was “disappointed” by Abe’s visit. An aide to Abe later hit back that it was Japan that was disappointed by the United States.

Maehara did not directly criticize Abe, who is known for his right-leaning views on history, but noted that government leaders during the DPJ’s 2009-2012 tenure refrained from visiting the shrine or rethinking Japan’s historical apologies.

Abe’s team recently said it will review Japan’s landmark 1993 apology to wartime sex slaves, known euphemistically in Japan as the “comfort women,” but backed down from revising it on Monday. The sensitive issue stirs passions in South Korea.

Maehara urged efforts to bolster ties with South Korea, saying he was struck during visits to Seoul by the widespread opposition to officially pacifist Japan’s efforts to alter the Constitution to engage in “collective self-defense” — or coming to the aid of an ally under armed attack.

“I believe Prime Minister Abe, as far as he aims at changing the interpretation on collective self-defense, needs to explore every possible way to improve the relations with South Korea,” he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama plans to visit Japan next month and has added a stop in Seoul.

A lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, also on a visit to Washington, said Abe was worried about “inaccurate depictions in the U.S. public.”

“Abe is the prime minister who is most concerned about deepening and strengthening the alliance and he is the only prime minister who will be able to produce concrete results,” said Katsuyuki Kawai, who said he spoke to Abe before his visit.

Kawai noted that Abe was pushing ahead on a plan to move a U.S. base within crowded Okinawa, even though a local mayor has vowed to resist.

U.S.-Japan ties took a hit in 2009 when the DPJ came to power and then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama vowed to rethink the plan to relocate the unpopular Futenma base.