BERLIN — Junichiro Koizumi will resign as the Japanese prime minister at the end of this month and be replaced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. Koizumi became prime minister in April 2001. After more than five years as prime minister, Koizumi’s political record is checkered: He achieved big successes with domestic reforms and economic recovery, but caused a political disaster in relations with Japan’s most important neighbors, China and South Korea.
Relations have not been this bad in decades. Sixty-one years after the end of World War II, the heads of state of China, South Korea and Japan are not talking to each other — the result of Koizumi’s policy. When Koizumi was running for office in 2001, he promised supporters he would visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo every year on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan. Koizumi visited the shrine every year, but it was only this year that he went on Aug. 15.
Yasukuni Shrine is a memorial to 2.4 million Japanese soldiers who died in wars Japan has been involved since the middle of the 19th century. The problem is that since 1978 the shrine also has memorialized 14 top war criminals or war-crime suspects. The prime minister’s visit to the shrine is, therefore, seen by Japan’s neighbors as a sign of support for those mostly Japanese historians who depict Japan primarily as a victim of the war — not as an imperialistic aggressor responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people in the 1930s and ’40s in East and Southeast Asia.
Koizumi’s visits remind Japan’s neighbors that Japan has not yet done enough to apologize in an acceptable manner for the war crimes, suffering and destruction caused by Japanese soldiers. It is true that Japan technically has apologized several times, but either the apology has been considered inadequate by Japan’s neighbors or, worse, the nice words have been negated by Koizumi’s subsequent visit to the shrine.
When Koizumi visited the shrine for the first time as prime minister in 2001, China and South Korea canceled visits and talks with Japan. China went on to cancel regular summits with Koizumi. All efforts by Japan’s diplomats to improve relations with China have been regularly disrupted by Koizumi’s annual visits.
The conflict over the shrine as well as Koizumi’s visits themselves are just symptoms of the unresolved problem of how to deal with the past with regard to relations between Japan and its neighbors.
China and South Korea still wait for an honest and trustworthy Japanese apology. From the Japanese point of view, Japan offered such an apology Aug. 15, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the war’s end. But Koizumi destroyed the prospect of improved relations by visiting Yasukuni on Oct. 17. Koizumi’s stubbornness and arrogance on this — just one element of his legacy — has created a crisis situation in relations between Japan and its neighbors.
A comparison of postwar Germany and Japan reveals that Koizumi is no Willy Brandt. In more than five years as prime minister, Koizumi is responsible for worsening relations with Japan’s neighbors, weakening the confidence of neighbors in improving ties with Japan and creating new anxieties in neighboring countries about Japan’s militaristic history.
On the other hand, Brandt, chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, focused, with his new Ostpolitik, on dealing with Germany’s history in a serious way when talking to neighbors in the East. His successful policy of building confidence on both sides to create opportunities for improved mutual relations earned Brandt the Peace Nobel Price in 1971.
Japan needs a Brandt-like prime minister to tackle the profound problems with China and South Korea following Koizumi’s disastrous approach. Abe will elected by the Diet as the new prime minister this week. Will he be up to this Herculean challenge?
Abe used to visit Yasukuni regularly on Aug. 15. So far, he has not yet decided whether he will do so as prime minister. Abe has acknowledged the urgent need for improved relations with China. For that to happen, though, Abe will have to decide early on that he will not visit the shrine and then seriously explain his reasons. That would be a key first step.
A second step could be a summit meeting between Abe and Chinese President Hu Jintao maybe as early as October to discuss the state of affairs in bilateral relations and how to improve Japan’s relations with its neighbors. There cannot be a better future in Japan’s relations with its neighbors without acknowledgment of Japan’s history in the last century.
Dealing with that history is still a difficult and painful process, as it is with Germany. It took 50 years after the liberation of Paris before French President Francois Mitterrand invited German troops to march with French troops down the Champs Elysees on July 14, 1994. And it took 50 years before German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Germany’s president were invited to attend celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end in early May 1995 in London, Paris and Moscow.
How long will we have to wait to see Japan and its neighbors remember the end of World War II together? When will it be possible for China and Japan to remember the Nanjing Massacre together? When will South Korea be willing to invite Japanese politicians to remember the liberation of South Korea?
Abe has a chance to deal with the historic burden of Japan’s relations with its neighbors and begin a trustworthy process of reconciliation. The test case will be whether he visits Yasukuni Shrine? If he does, he will wreck the new opportunity, and Japan and its neighbors may have to wait for Abe’s successor before they get another chance.
To ensure that Abe seizes the moment, Japan’s American and European partners should strive to bring the countries in East Asia closer together. What Japan needs is gaiatsu (foreign pressure) in a positive sense.
A lesson learned in Europe is that it is necessary to engage governments and other groups from outside the region to help improve difficult bilateral relations. Japan’s deteriorating relations with China and South Korea are a serious concern for Europe and the United States as well.
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