In mid-March I had a chance to discuss recent Japan-U.S. relations with George Washington University professor Mike Mochizuki. He summed up the Obama administration’s view of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as follows.

Before Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, U.S. government leaders had an image of the Japanese prime minister as a pragmatist. That’s the very reason the United States said it was “disappointed” when Abe visited Yasukuni. U.S. criticism of Japan subsided for a while after the new year as Washington kept its distance from moves by China and South Korea, which tried to drum up domestic support by using history issues with Japan as a political tool.

Nevertheless, signs of a rise of self-centered nationalism in Japan — as illustrated by criticism of the Obama administration voiced by a close aide to Abe, verbal gaffes by the NHK chairman as well as attempts by lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and part of the opposition camp to kill the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the wartime “comfort women” issue — reignited U.S. leaders’ harsh view of Japan.

The Obama administration still avoids outright criticism of Japan’s political leaders because that would likely trigger further Japanese criticism of the U.S. government and fuel nationalism in this country. But American leaders share an underlying concern that Japan’s conservative political leaders are drifting away from global common sense.

Abe claims that he shares the values of freedom and democracy. But if he sticks to his self-righteous positions on history issues, he will be deemed by the international community as being at odds with common sense, as Mochizuki pointed out. Failure to possess the common sense prevalent in the international community is one of the weaknesses of Japan’s right-wing politicians.

If one reads the Liberal Democratic Party’s draft of a new constitution, one is surprised to see that lawmakers of this party appear to have little understanding of the basic principles of modern democracy and government under constitutional rule.

It must be noted, though, that survival of such pre-modern (or anti-modern) politicians in Japan was a direct product of U.S. policy. Democracy in Japan was brought about through its defeat in World War II. Right after the war, the U.S. demanded that Japanese leaders pledge allegiance to democracy and purged leaders of the old regime.

But when the Cold War kicked in soon afterward, the U.S. put priority on fighting communism over promoting democracy, and right-wing leaders regained their positions and set the foundations for the 1955 establishment of the Liberal Democratic Party.

In essence, what happened in Japan was no different from what enabled dictators to thrive in Latin America and Southeast Asia. They received U.S. support as long as they followed U.S. policies.

In the early 1990s, just after the end of the Cold War, there was a movement of modernization within the LDP. The prime minister at the time was Kiichi Miyazawa, the party’s most rationalist leader. Emperor Akihito visited China in 1992, the first-ever visit to the country by a Japanese emperor, and the Kono statement on the comfort women issue was released the following year.

After falling from power in 1993, the LDP returned to the helm of government through a coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Japan and approved the release of a statement in 1995 by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to mark the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. In this statement the Socialist leader apologized for the war that Japan had waged against its neighbors and for the heavy damage inflicted on them under a wrongheaded national policy. These moves were attempts to end the disputes involving perceptions of history while the generation that experienced the war was still alive.

Some nationalists within the LDP, however, apparently felt humiliated by such attempts. Among them was Shinzo Abe, who had just been elected to the Lower House in 1993. These conservative lawmakers have since pursued a right-leaning agenda such as meddling with the content of history textbooks from revisionist viewpoints and pushing for revision of the war-renouncing Constitution.

This movement has culminated in the current Abe administration, which is based on two sets of foundations — traditional conservative forces that favor strong ties with the U.S. and right-wing elements that take anti-U.S. postures. Lifting the ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense is an issue that straddles both forces.

Pro-U.S. conservative forces say that Japan needs to be able to exercise the right to collective self-defense to advance the security alliance with the U.S.

Anti-U.S. right-wingers see it as a window of opportunity to effectively annul the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

On history-related issues, the pro-U.S. conservatives are supposed to rein in the behaviors of Abe. The Abe administration seems to feel it necessary to mend fences with South Korea to handle North Korea, and Abe has just met with President Park Geun-hye through the intermediation of President Barack Obama in the Netherlands. But at the moment, right-wing forces appear to be gaining clout, and Abe himself seems to feel more affinity with them.

What we are witnessing is quite an unusual picture within the LDP — two different conservative elements jostling for influence inside the party, which has expanded into a behemoth as a result of its recent election victories.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University. He will begin teaching at Hosei University in April.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.