2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Many observers feared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, regarded as a nationalist and history revisionist, might stir up sentiment and further aggravate Japan’s already strained relations with China and South Korea.
However, the year ended with the opposite result: On Monday Abe managed to clinch a deal to “finally and irreversibly” settle the long-standing “comfort women” issue with South Korea.
He also won agreements with Beijing and Seoul on Nov. 1 to resume their annual trilateral summits, significantly improving diplomacy with the two countries.
Kazuhiko Togo, a former senior Foreign Ministry official and now professor of international politics at Kyoto Sangyo University, said Abe is able to make critical concessions on key diplomatic issues mainly for two reasons: He has solid support from general voters thanks to a relatively good economy and has the backing of nationalist forces.
“Only a strong, nationalist administration is able to make concessions. If a liberal prime minister does the same thing, nationalists will only try to drag (him or her) down,” Togo said in an interview two days before Seoul and Tokyo reached agreement on the comfort women — Japan’s euphemism for the women and girls forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during the war.
Japan does not formally recognize legal responsibility to compensate the females for their suffering, but on Monday it promised to provide ¥1 billion for a new Korean fund to help the survivors. Abe telephoned South Korean President Park Geun-hye, offering his “most sincere apologies and remorse.”
At the joint announcement, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan “keenly feels responsibility” over the damage inflicted on “the honor and dignity of many women” with “the involvement” of Japanese military authorities.
Such apologies may sound humiliating to the nationalists in Japan who have denied any responsibility — moral or legal — for the comfort women. They argue that the military brothels were a mere variant of then-common state-regulated brothels that were run by private businesses.
But the right-wingers also probably know there was no alternative for Abe, the only Japanese prime minister in history who has openly advocated revising the war-renouncing Constitution — his life-long political ambition.
In a Dec. 29 editorial, the right-leaning daily Sankei Shimbun expressed concern with the agreement, arguing that the word “involvement” is “misleading” and that whether Seoul will carry out its promises in the deal remains to be seen. But the paper didn’t directly criticize Abe.
On the other hand, Abe may have made concessions with South Korea, believing it would boost public support ahead of next summer’s Upper House election, which is considered critically important to Abe. If his Liberal Democratic Party wins big, the LDP and other right-leaning political forces could acquire enough seats to initiate a national referendum on constitutional revisions.
To prepare for the election, Abe and his aides have been trying to play up economic issues to keep voters happy, while keeping a low profile on other political issues.
“(The deal) has removed a thorn in Japanese-South Korean relations. It will boost the support rate of the Cabinet” in the opinion polls, said Toshihiro Nikai, chairman of the LDP’s executive council.
Tsuneo Watanabe, director of policy research at the think tank Tokyo Foundation, highly rated Abe’s diplomacy last year.
Many observers were concerned Abe might try to rewrite Japan’s official views on WWII history and cause diplomatic trouble, but he dispelled such worries by delivering a speech before the U.S. Congress in April and issued a statement in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Watanabe said.
“The 70th anniversary statement didn’t draw strong (condemnation), even from China or South Korea,” Watanabe said.
“Abe did a good job.”
In 2016, the trilateral summit involving Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo will be the next touchstone for gauging Japan’s improving ties, Watanabe said.
The three leaders used to hold the trilateral summit each year but suspended it about 3½ years ago as relations unraveled over territorial and history disputes.
Abe, Park and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang met in Seoul on Nov. 1 and agreed to resume the trilateral meetings. The next one will be hosted by Japan this year.
Japan will also start chairing meetings of the Group of Seven developed countries this year and host the G-7 summit on May 26 and 27. As many as 10 ministerial-level G-7 meetings will be held in Japan from April through September, each time putting Japan in the spotlight.
The Group of Seven comprises the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Canada.
The relative influence of the G-7 appears to have declined in recent years, given the rise of emerging powers China, India and Russia.
But Junichi Takase, professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies and an expert on the G-7, argued that their meetings still carry particular importance for Japan, which is not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and whose presence in the international community has declined in recent years.
The G-7 is a group of major countries that share the same values including democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It plays an important role in the international community by sending out political messages on issues involving these values, Takase said.