Repairing ties with Beijing and Seoul

More than a half year after the inauguration of the Abe Cabinet, Japan’s bilateral relations with China and South Korea remain chilly. South Korean President Park Geun-hye met with U.S. President Barack Obama in early May in Washington. Although South Korean leaders traditionally follow up such a meeting with a visit to Japan, Ms. Park chose instead to travel to Beijing in late June to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In early July, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was able to meet with his South Korean counterpart, Mr. Yun Byung-se, at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Brunei. But he wasn’t even able to have an informal chat with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a former ambassador to Japan, on the sidelines of that meeting.

Clearly Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statements on the perception of 20th-century history in Asia are a major reason for the chilly state of Japan’s ties with China and South Korea. When Japan faced criticism from China and South Korea over three Cabinet members’ visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead, in April, Mr. Abe said, “My Cabinet members will never yield to any threat” over Yasukuni visits. His statement shows that he does not understand the ideological role the shrine played in promoting Japan’s 20th century militarism.

In April, Prime Minister Abe told the Diet, “There is no definition of aggression, academically and internationally.” As for Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s Aug. 15, 1995, statement in which Mr. Murayama apologized for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression in the Asia-Pacific region, Mr. Abe denied that his Cabinet accepts the Murayama statement in its entirety.

Mr. Abe should realize that whatever damage control he does, his attitude about historical issues involving Japan’s militarism damages Japan’s image abroad. He should also pay attention to signs that the United States has concerns about his views on these issues because they are negatively impacting regional stability. His stance could eventually damage Japan-U.S. security ties.

In a discussion meeting on July 3 with other political party leaders prior to the official kickoff of the Upper House election campaign, Mr. Abe said that the question of whether Japan committed aggression against neighboring countries should be left to scholars. This invited criticism from Seoul saying that the prime minister is deliberately trying to turn away from the Japanese government’s official acknowledgment of responsibility for Japan’s past aggression against its neighbors.

Mr. Abe and other party leaders would do well to remember that the Murayama statement helped to improve Japan’s ties with China and South Korea. They should make practical proposals to boost bilateral ties on the basis of the Murayama statement and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s 1993 statement, which recognized the coercive nature of Japan’s wartime sex slavery. Any nationalistic moves by Japanese politicians will only cause bilateral ties with China and South Korea to worsen.

Good ties with Japan’s two most important neighbors are key to strong economic ties and regional stability. In the few remaining days before Sunday’s Upper House election, political parties should address how they plan to resolve diplomatic difficulties and build stronger relationships with South Korea and China.