Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Under Abe, Japan gets left behind at G-7 summit

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the best thing about the recent G-7 Ise-Shima summit was that it gave him cover to wriggle out of a planned tax increase. He could pretend postponing the tax increase is a statesman-like concession to boosting global growth, rather than a way to pander to voters in the upcoming Upper House elections. For those who insist that the tax postponement signals the failure of Abenomics, Abe’s riposte is “The global economy ate my homework!”

Hosting the G-7 summit was supposed to be an opportunity for Abe to strut tall on the international stage, rubbing shoulders with the heads of state that represent the rich nations, but things didn’t really go to plan. Abe found that herding cats is easier than finding common ground with world leaders.

G-7 leaders are disappointed with Japan’s trivial role in the refugee crisis. Last year at a U.N. General Assembly, Abe fobbed off questions about what Japan would do to help by saying it was more important to address domestic economic problems, such as promoting women and the elderly in the workforce, than to assist refugees — a stand that fits with Japan’s accustomed role of punching below its weight on the global stage.

Tokyo has been ready to disburse money to other countries hosting refugees and contribute generously to the UNHCR, examples of the checkbook diplomacy that lets other nations do the heavy lifting and keeps asylum seekers offshore. Japan plans to grant a total of 150 visas to Syrian “exchange students” over five years, which will enable them to complete their studies in Japan but, pointedly, will not recognize them as refugees.

This paltry initiative highlights that, since Japan signed the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981, the nation has admitted less than 600 in total. In 2015,it accepted 27 refugees (only three were Syrian), while Germany accepted 1.1 million. This marks an improvement, however, over the 11 refugees accepted in 2014 and six in 2013. Tokyo also did nothing to resettle Rohingya refugees from Myanmar during the crisis that erupted there in 2015.

Then there is climate change. Only Japan is firing up new coal plants with abandon and leading the world in exporting such plants, making it a carbon-emissions superpower.

Abe’s woes gathered when the G-7 finance ministers did not line up behind his proposal for collective fiscal stimulus and made clear that monetary policy cannot nurture sustainable growth, one of the well-known reasons why Abenomics has been an abject failure. Moreover, the U.S. warned Japan off its plans to lower the value of the yen.

It gets worse. The murder of an Okinawan woman by a U.S. military base worker was announced on the eve of the summit, igniting anti-base demonstrations and putting Abe in the hot seat. Before making a pilgrimage to Hiroshima with U.S. President Barack Obama, Abe gave the president a dressing down about the murder. But since Abe is so closely associated with promoting an expansion of U.S.-Japan security cooperation, and has steamrollered opposition in his efforts to please Washington — with the planned relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base in Okinawa — it’s not clear that he can avoid taking a political hit.

On Abe’s watch, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the first atomic bombing. This was supposed to boost Abe’s stature in the run-up to elections for the Upper House of the Diet in July — and possibly a double snap election for the Lower House — as he gears up to revise Japan’s Constitution. But the recent murder in Okinawa is complicating this agenda, and alliance politics in general, while casting a shadow over Obama’s symbolic gesture.

The Hiroshima visit showed Obama conveying contrition, accepting moral responsibility and embracing hibakusha, as survivors of the atomic bombings are known. Clearly, the vast majority of Japanese welcomed Obama’s symbolic gesture even though he did not offer an apology. By engaging sincerely with the hibakusha, Obama partially addressed this unfinished business between the U.S. and Japan, restoring dignity to the victims and leading bilateral relations further down the road from foe to friend. Obama seeks to give momentum to his post-retirement agenda on nonproliferation and disarmament by reminding everyone what is at stake, as is vividly and excruciatingly on display in Hiroshima. Where better to find inspiration for his quest? Alas, he laid out no action plan for how to achieve this vision of a nuclear-free world.

Obama’s recent reconciliation diplomacy — in Iran and Cuba, where he restored relations, and in Vietnam, where he sparked Obama-mania in a nation once devastated by American military aggression — offers a stark contrast to Abe’s feeble attempts at fence-mending over Japan’s wartime aggression. This has been a leap too far for Abe, who is known for his revisionist views on Japan’s shared history with Asia. By backsliding on past expressions of remorse and sustained efforts to rehabilitate that shabby era, he is promoting an exculpatory and valorizing narrative that riles the neighbors and many Japanese.

Obama’s apology sidestep prompted Toru Hashimoto, Osaka’s right-wing enfant terrible, to chortle in a tweet that now Japan doesn’t need to apologize for its wartime actions. But this is yet another of his puerile claims that doesn’t add up. Abe can’t slip off the hook of history so easily because Japan can’t avoid the burdens of being an instigator and perpetrator of imperial aggression from 1895 to 1945, when it cut a bloody swath throughout Asia. It can’t hide behind the atomic bombing to shirk this onus.

Obama has often prodded Abe beyond his comfort zone on history issues. Abe was surprised at Washington’s swift and sharp rebuke for his 2013 Yasukuni Shrine visit. Then, in April 2014, the president stood next to Abe in front of the media and said he knew the Japanese people understand why the “comfort women” issue is so important, but only thought Abe understood — a subtle, barbed distinction. He also forced Abe to publicly declare his support for the 1993 Kono statement, acknowledging state responsibility for coercive recruitment of wartime “comfort women,” and prodded Seoul and Tokyo to overcome this issue at the end of 2015. Obama has been a thorn in Abe’s side on history, making things difficult for Abe’s spin doctors and apologists.

Regarding misguided speculation about an Abe visit to Pearl Harbor, bear in mind that his revisionist views on history, which downplay and seek to legitimize Japanese aggression, won’t be welcome where the war began. He is the wrong leader for the right gesture.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.