In many accounts, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in February to the United States was a success. At least he made no blunders. More than that, he succeeded in conveying the most important message that he wanted to communicate to Washington — that “Japan is back.”
The primary reason behind Abe’s success this time was his attempt to deliberately keep expectations on the U.S. side low. The policy of the Abe Cabinet to keep a low profile until the Upper House election in the coming summer has been well understood by the U.S. side and no criticism of the policy was heard.
Second, because the timing of Abe’s visit coincided with the start of the Obama administration’s second term, the State Department chose to maintain former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy line unaltered, including that involving the Senkaku Islands issue.
Third, the morale of national bureaucrats in Japan has been boosted amazingly since the formation of the Abe Cabinet. Not only officials of the Foreign Ministry and the Japanese embassy in Washington but also economics bureaucrats in charge of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and defense bureaucrats in charge of security matters and Okinawa-related issues displayed their full potential in preparing for Abe’s U.S. visit and coordinating with their American counterparts.
Nothing is more important than keeping bureaucrats’ morale high when politicians want to bring out the best from them. There are, however, some elements that do not warrant optimism regarding the future of Japan’s relations with the U. S.
The U.S.-Japan alliance has a particularly high strategic significance at a time when a sea change is taking place in the balance in East Asia due to the rapid economic and military growth of China. Compared with this strategic significance, the factors mentioned above that contributed to the success of Abe’s U.S. trip were nothing but tactical and technical.
While editorials of major American newspapers were generally favorable regarding Abe’s visit, including The Washington Post, none discussed it from a strategic viewpoint. Only the Wall Street Journal criticized President Barack Obama’s silence on the Senkaku Island issue.
The New York Times did not carry any editorial on Abe’s visit. But in its article published prior to the visit, it posed the question of whether Japan would be isolated in Asia if its constitutional revision and reorganization of the Self-Defense Forces following the Upper House election provoke China and other Asian neighbors sensitive to a resurgence of Japanese militarism.
In the United Kingdom, the Financial Times also summarized Abe’s trip as a success but raised a similar alert on the Abe government’s future conduct.
In a way, the Abe government has succeeded in evading a crisis before it arose. Had the government taken up the Yasukuni Shrine and comfort women issues squarely from the beginning, it could have played into the hands of manipulated public opinion in China and South Korea.
The Abe Cabinet is the first conservative government in Japan in a long time. I believe, roughly speaking, conservatism in Japan faces two major tasks.
The first is eradication of the so-called postwar historical view. This view was a product of the U.S. policy in the earlier days of the postwar Occupation. U.S. Occupation authorities taught Japanese children that all of Japan’s past and traditions were bad in an attempt to completely eradicate Japan’s war potential, both materially and spiritually.
The U.S. revised this policy as soon as the Cold War began in order to make Japan a reliable ally. But the education based on this policy was taken over by pro-communist leftist elements in Japan, whose main purpose was to neutralize Japan in the realm of intellectual and moral capabilities. This led to the emergence of the leftist biased historical view.
No nation can survive when its history and traditions are denied. Eradication of this leftist historical view has been a long-term issue for the Japanese nation and it has to be continuously pursued in classrooms and other educational arenas.
The problem is that past governments in Japan have unnecessarily turned this purely domestic issue into an international issue. Examples include Chief Cabinet Secretary Kiichi Miyazawa’s comment on the history textbook issue, Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda’s announcement banning prime ministers from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s comment on the comfort women issue.
Once these issues become internationalized, Japan would certainly be isolated because the countries that were the victors in World War II never relinquish the historical view that the victors are always right while the defeated are always wrong — logically an impossible proposition.
While opinions in the U.S. have much more latitude, other victor countries are completely monolithic on this view. Therefore, these issues must be dealt with as domestic issues of the Japanese people; complicating them by turning them into international issues must be avoided.
The second agenda for conservatives in Japan is departure from the postwar regime in the field of defense and security issues, including an increase in the defense budget and approval of the exercise of the right to collective self-defense.
From the viewpoint of its own strategic interests, it is unthinkable that the U.S. will oppose Japan’s departure from the postwar regime in these matters.
China and leftist elements within Japan will oppose this direction with respect to defense and security issues, by treating it as inseparable from the historical view issue and characterizing it as manifestation of Japan’s turn to the right. An attempt at revising the Constitution squarely deals with the historical view issue and defense and security issues at the same time.
While the national sentiment to hasten the accomplishment in rectifying the left-leaning historical view is well justified, I believe it is necessary to clear problems in defense and security matters as soon as possible. Pursuing both agendas simultaneously should be avoided.
In other words, priority should be placed on strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance around defense and security issues. Even though Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi repeatedly visited Yasukuni Shrine during his tenure, the U.S.-Japan relations remained unshaken thanks to Koizumi-Bush relations having been consolidated beforehand.
Strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance does not need to wait for the Upper House election. After all, approval of the exercise of the right to collective self-defense and an increase in the defense budget are already international commitments Japan made in the summit with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Hisahiko Okazaki served as Japan’s ambassador to Thailand from 1988-1992. This is a translation of Sankei Shimbun’s March 8 Seiron column.