For Tokyo, U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima could bring two significant benefits.
It hopes the gesture will rekindle movement toward a world without nuclear weapons.
But in the short-term there could be a significant additional payoff: enough upswing for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to call a Lower House election to coincide with a planned Upper House poll scheduled in July.
Until recently, Abe believed he could secure landslides in both chambers and therefore a free hand in revising the Constitution. But he gave up the idea after the Kumamoto earthquakes last month to forestall criticism of playing political games at a time of national trauma.
Yet, by accompanying Obama to Hiroshima, Abe may be seen as a leader who is strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance. It could also present him as a global leader spearheading a movement for a global peace, enough to offset the damage sustained when he forced security legislation through the Diet late last year. Those laws took effect in April.
“I think the chances are very high that Abe will dissolve the Diet, because this would be the best timing for him to call double elections,” Yuichiro Tamaki, a Lower House member of the opposition Democratic Party told The Japan Times. “The image of Obama and Abe together is likely to help push up the approval rate of Abe’s government.”
A firm Japan-U.S. alliance has been a strong driving force for Abe, who succeeded in renewing the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation for the first time in 18 years. The security laws enacted last month would also allow Japan to come to the aid of U.S. troops under attack if Japan is itself under threat.
When asked about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday stressed Abe’s position that the Japan-U.S. relationship is the “cornerstone” of Japanese diplomacy.
Tsutomu Sato, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party’s Lower House Diet matter committee, echoed Suga’s comments by saying Abe’s commitment to the bilateral relationship has paid off.
One unnamed LDP lawmaker said Obama’s visit to Hiroshima would give another boost to Abe’s ruling coalition in the election.
This apparent showcasing of a strong Japan-U.S. alliance comes at a time when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has questioned its value and China has been flexing its beefed-up muscles in the South China and East China seas.
Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday noted that the U.S. has no intention of apologizing for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. China routinely accuses Japan of failing to reflect on the root cause of the tragedy while emphasizing its victimhood.
Experts say China has been using this historical context to try to drive Washington and Tokyo apart, out of fear that they seek jointly to challenge China.
Yet Tetsuo Kotani said China can no longer try to drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S. by playing the history card.
“Obama’s visit shows that Japan and the U.S. can reconcile without a U.S. apology,” said Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.
Kotani added, Obama’s vision for a world without nuclear weapons is an ultimate goal but not an immediate one. He said Japan will still need to rely on extended deterrence for now.
Nevertheless, reconciliation between the attacker and victim would send a strong message for nuclear disarmament and regional security.
“If we work together to strengthen the extended deterrence, it could counter provocation by countries like China or North Korea, which could contribute to regional security,” Kotani said.