’15 saw Abe keep nationalism in check, reset Seoul, Beijing ties


Staff Writer

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.

  • KenjiAd

    Abe made a deal with South Korean government for one reason, one reason only – to create a bridge towards building a new Japan where ethnic nationalism would not be considered something awkward or shameful.

    Japan in which ethnic nationalism is accepted, even encouraged, could be a very dangerous country. Japan has no tradition of civic nationalism, like the one in America, which is not xenophobic and in principle compatible with the values of free countries.

    Ethnic nationalism is a totally different animal and doesn’t have an admirable history.

    On top of that, people in Japan are intrinsically ethnocentric and therefore do not have immunity against the political manipulation appealing to the ethnocentric sentiment.

    As the memory of the dark past is being replaced by revisionist views, I think Abe could spell the beginning of a bad omen for people in Japan. I hope not, but I don’t see any evidence to the contrary right now.

    • Manthinks

      Japan’s current emperor is well-aware of the danger that the ghost of his grandfather ethnicity militarism creeping back into the Japanese institutions and ultimately its own people..

      Now, if that 70 years of memory, tens of millions of lives and 2 atomic bombings aren’t sufficient to put that ghost where it belongs, then I foresee whatever Abe’s checks and resets are just a ploy. Remember his motto when he ran for election only a few years ago ?

      • A.J. Sutter

        More than any elected legislators, the current Imperial Couple are the most prominent defenders of democracy in this country. I wish their reign could continue for another 20 or more years, but this seems unlikely. The Crown Prince seems much weaker and more malleable, like his grandfather the Showa Emperor. Should the Government be as right wing as currently when he succeeds to the throne, I expect he could be persuaded to visit Yasukuni Shrine – something no emperor has done up to now. On the other hand: Princess Masako was absent from the official reception on January 2, and perhaps is unwilling to carry out the duties of Empress; and as much as I favor getting rid of gender-based restrictions for succession, I’m not sure Aiko-chan is the most capable test case for this. If the Crown Prince abdicates in favor of his brother Fumihoto, currently father of the heir to the throne, that might be welcome — Fumihoto apparently is very close to Empress Michiko, and shares her more enlightened views. He’s likely to be a stronger counterbalance to right wing nationalists than would be his older brother.

      • A.J. Sutter

        Sorry, my auto-correct kept changing my spelling to the wrong one Fumihito of course, not “Fumihoto.”

    • A.J. Sutter

      Here is a different take: he made the so-called agreement “for one reason, one reason only”: because the Obama Administration pressured both sides to do so, to build more cooperation for the military containment of China. Pace the head of the LDP executive council (quoted in the article), the thorn is still there: this so-called agreement has just rubbed some local anaesthetic in the wound, in time for the US deadline of year-end.

      Since nothing is in writing and the victims themselves weren’t consulted, it’s very unlikely that any harmony will outlast the Obama and Park Adminstrations — the door is open for both the South Korean government and private Korean groups, including in the US, to keep this issue alive. Should Hashimoto Touru ever become PM (clearly his ambition, notwithstanding his tatemae retirement from politics), we can also expect a lot of backtracking on the Japan side. Maybe Ishiba would be so inclined as well, though his charisma is considerably less so he might not be able to pull it off.

      Ethnic nationalism has been alive and well at the institutional level in both Japan and Korea for a long time. Nor is this something that can be changed determined solely by the mood of the voters. On the Korean side, look at the use of the prosecutor’s office. On the Japan side, consider that it’s more difficult for many “special permanent residents” — people of Korean or Chinese nationality who were born in Japan — to naturalize than it is for an American-born person of European ancestry, like me. This very dubious policy is due to the elite bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, who are far more independent of political control than their counterparts in UK ministries or US Cabinet agencies.

    • Tando

      I agree with most points of your comment, although I am not so sure if American “civic patriotism „is any different from Japanese “cultural nationalism”, because it renders citizens in blind followers of an ideology and their leaders. Remember how any criticism of the Iraq war was labelled as unpatriotic. Only after a very sobering failure they came down from their high and realized that it was a mistake to start this war in the first place. Nationalism is like a drug that turns people into brainwashed zombies.
      That said I am more and more concerned about the rising nationalism here. Viewpoints that were considered rightwing until not too long ago are moving mainstream. If you attempt to broach this you are guilty of a great sin namely disturbing the Wa harmony. Sanctions against such behaviour
      can reach from death threats to ostracism and are thus good control mechanism against any criticism. In the Meiji period and after WW2 there were scholars who tried to analyze Japanese society and move it to a more liberal social structure. But in both cases this scratched only the surface, underneath the old hierarchical structures remained and that is the biggest obstacle for any change here.
      About 20 years ago I went to a Japanese language school here and was very surprised that they gave the book “Nihon bunmei 77 no kagi” written by Umesao Tadao an ultra conservative scholar who trivialized Japans war period as a romantic but badly planned adventure. There were many
      other very lopsided and hilarious articles, but the teachers at the school
      seemed to believe that this was the right material to teach us about Japanese culture. Ever since I have wondered if it was possible discuss these issues openly here.

  • A.J. Sutter

    Well, ask a former MOFA official, the head of the LDP executive council and the Tokyo Foundation, and of course no one is going to criticize Abe. Online there are many angry voices in Japan about this deal. Also, I don’t know anyone personally who’s happy about it — and I don’t travel in ultra-rightist circles. Rather than those voters supporting Abe anyway, as the main article suggests, I think we can expect an even lower turnout in this year’s election than in the past, and that Osaka Ishin will do well where it has candidates on the ballot. We may also see the vain and opportunistic Hashimoto come out of his sham “retirement” and position himself as being even more to the right than Abe.

    On the other hand, I also know more moderate voters who had voted for Abe solely because of his tough stance on China and Korea but who are now disillusioned. Togo-sensei’s idea that Abe “has solid support from general voters thanks to a relatively good economy” is a misattribution — many supported him only for his apparent unwillingness to let Japan get pushed around, a stance he’s now publicly abandoned (in the eyes of many). Let’s also not forget that when one considers single-member district votes and party votes in the aggregate, most votes cast in both 2012 and 2014 were AGAINST the ruling coalition. Japan’s very twisted Public Offices Election Law might still result in a win in this year’s election, but the dismal impact of Abenomics on the lives of most Japanese may result in some local opportunities for DPJ and its allies.