TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has demonstrated that he is a brilliant politician. His resounding victory in the Sept. 11 Lower House Diet elections provides him with an opportunity to demonstrate his brilliance as an international statesman as well.
If Koizumi really does step down as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and hence as prime minister next year as promised (and as called for under party guidelines), he will have much to look back upon with pride, both domestically and internationally. He has moved Japan steadily along the road toward becoming a “normal nation” more willing and able to play an active role in international security affairs, putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq (in a reconstruction mode) and personally negotiating the release of Japanese citizens and their families long held hostage by Pyongyang. He has also moved Tokyo a step closer to a much-deserved seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), even if this effort thus far remains short of its ultimate goal.
One thing Koizumi will not be able to claim credit for, however, is better relations with Japan’s two closest and most important neighbors. By almost any measurement, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul are considerably worse today than when Koizumi assumed office. While his Korean and Chinese counterparts must share the blame for the deterioration, primary responsibility rests with Koizumi himself. More importantly, the opportunity to reverse current downward trends also resides in the Japanese prime minister’s hands, if he is willing to be as bold a diplomat as he has been a politician.
It’s no secret that the leadership in Beijing and Seoul were hoping for a Koizumi defeat. Having had that wish denied, they appear willing now to just ride him out, not only allowing relations to continue to deteriorate but, when possible, exploiting anti-Japan sentiments for their own political advantage. Koizumi could turn all this around in a way that would not only enhance Tokyo’s international image but that would move it closer to its desired UNSC goal.
Obviously, I’m talking about Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine; a move that is both politically courageous and diplomatically counterproductive. I have long defended his right to go to the shrine, which contains the spirits of 2.5 million Japanese war dead, most regrettably to include 14 World War II class-A war criminals. During each of his personal visits, Koizumi has delivered a strong antiwar message, calling attention to Japan’s militaristic past and pledging “never again.”
Unfortunately, the symbolism of the visits has completely overshadowed the message, making it easy for Koizumi’s detractors to politically exploit the visits. The time has come, therefore, for Koizumi to stop exercising his right to visit Yasukuni for the sake of the greater good . . . but only if the leaders of China and South Korea are prepared to make an equally bold diplomatic gesture that will finally let all three countries focus on the future instead of being continually blinded by the past.
Koizumi should announce that he is willing, out of respect for his neighbor’s sensitivities, to curtail his visits to Yasukuni. He should then call on Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun to meet with him in a three-way summit to discuss both history and the future.
As regards history, Koizumi should lend his personal endorsement to a recent textbook titled “The Contemporary and Modern History of Three East Asian Countries” that is jointly produced by a commission of Chinese, South Korean and Japanese scholars, which provides a balanced history of relations among the three Northeast Asian states. Koizumi should pledge that every library in every school in Japan will receive multiple copies of the text.
The leaders of Korea and China should then make the same pledge and be prepared to articulate to their own publics all the positive things that Japan has done to promote economic development in their countries over the past 60 years. After all, history did not end in 1945. Since the end of World War II, no country in the world has had a better record in terms of promoting peace and prosperity, in word and in deed, including refraining from the use of force, than has Japan.
Certainly China, which leads the world in expressing moral outrage over Japan’s unrepentant past, cannot make the same claim — Beijing has used military force on more than one occasion against many of its neighbors (including India, Vietnam, Russia, and in the Spratly and Paracel Islands), not to mention against its own people. Mao’s policies in the second half of the 20th century accounted for the deaths of many more innocent Chinese civilians (perhaps by a factor of 10 or more) than did the Japanese Imperial Army in the first half of that century; a fact that is conveniently overlooked in Chinese history books (which also imply that the United States and South Korea, not North Korea, started the Korean War).
A more balanced view of the history of both halves of the last century would go a long way toward healing the wounds of history suffered by the people of China, Korea and Japan, as would a toning down of the rhetoric and a depoliticizing of the history issue in all three countries.
Koizumi should take the critical next step by announcing his decision to curtail future visits in return for a three-way summit, perhaps along the sidelines of the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Pusan in November, which all three leaders are scheduled to attend.
At such a meeting, Koizumi, Roh and Hu should endorse the common history project, stress the positive aspects of things that Japan has done in helping the economic miracles in South Korea and China, and pledge to move their trilateral relations constructively forward.