Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye last week looked a bit like schoolyard rivals called into the principal’s office and forced to smile and say nice things to one another. Barack Obama convened last Tuesday’s trilateral summit, casting himself in the role of headmaster. It was a cagey move by a U.S. president whose promise to turn his administration’s attention to Asia has been more talk than action.
Making sure the Abe-Park meeting is more than a fleeting photo opportunity requires concrete steps, however.
Although there’s plenty of blame to go around for the sorry state of relations between Japan and its neighbors, there’s something Abe could do to ratchet down tensions and build trust with Park: Tell people in his inner circle to clam up.
Abe’s government has enraged South Koreans with efforts to whitewash Japan’s World War II colonization and sexual enslavement of women in conquered nations. The obsession with beautifying Japan’s past and unshackling the military from the constraints of a constitution written by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s team has created an environment that encourages unrepentant nationalists to step out of the shadows and be heard.
Sadly that includes officials in high places. The main reason Park agreed to meet Abe was his government’s decision not to revise Japan’s 1993 apology for using sex slaves.
But the brief summit almost didn’t happen because of comments by Abe aide Koichi Hagiuda, who said that Japan should make new statements if new facts emerge, as if the nation’s wartime atrocities are an issue that’s open to dispute.
There’s a smarter way for Abe and his administration to deal with Japan’s past: Limit comments to events that occurred after, say, 1990. If a journalist asks about the Nanjing massacre, say: “Look our message is Japan is back and we’re looking to the future.” If queried about sex slaves, say: “You should talk to historians; I can only tell you where Japan is headed.”
If Japan wants China and South Korea to get over the past, it should start by not debating history’s facts.
Consider where perceptions about Japan have traveled in recent years. In March 2011, a huge earthquake and tsunami left 20,000 dead or missing and precipitated the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. Japan received an outpouring of support and sympathy in north Asia. Three years and all that good will is gone.
If Abe told his own people to shut up, that would be just a first step. He would have to make sure the same message is delivered to his Liberal Democratic Party, those leading the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and bigwigs at national broadcaster NHK.
Then he needs to fix the economy. Abe sometimes seems to forget that his mandate is increasing economic growth, not opening a Pandora’s Box of side issues that antagonize economic partners. A 20 percent yen devaluation doesn’t work very well if consumers in two of your biggest markets are furious at you.
Revive the economy and much of the global clout that Japan craves will following. But first, Abe needs to ensure that his aides and colleagues stop saying stupid things about the past.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.