The Magazine

The Unquiet Prime Minister

Japan's premier makes his first visit to Washington.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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The last time a Japanese premier met George Bush in America, ten months ago, he wound up touring Graceland and serenading his host with Elvis numbers. Junichiro Koizumi won't soon be confused with the King, but the "Sayonara Summit" of June 2006 affirmed his status as one of Bush's favorite foreign leaders. There won't be nearly as much bonhomie and backslapping when the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, arrives for his first official U.S. visit this week. Yet in many ways this trip is more significant, as the alliance has hit a rough patch.

Like Koizumi, Abe seeks to move beyond Japan's postwar passivity. Koizumi sent naval ships to the war in Afghanistan and ground troops to the war in Iraq, both in noncombat roles. Since Abe took power in September, Tokyo has upgraded the Japan Defense Agency to formal ministry status and intensified cooperation with the Pentagon on missile defense. Abe's ultimate goal, long prized by Japanese conservatives, is to amend the pacifist Article 9 of Japan's MacArthur-era constitution. He hopes to drag Japan from its guilt-driven foreign policy toward a "proactive diplomacy" based on "common values," such as freedom and democracy.

All of which the Bush administration has welcomed. But Abe is more ideological than Koizumi. He gives credence to Japan's World War II revisionists and regards the Tokyo Trials with suspicion. Koizumi apologized several times for the damage wrought by Japanese militarism; Abe seems less comfortable acknowledging this history. Many Japanese complain of "apology fatigue," insisting their country has sufficiently expressed remorse for Tojo-era crimes. But Abe goes a step further, often sugarcoating those crimes.

The "history issue" flared up again on March 1, when Abe appeared to deny that Japanese soldiers had coerced tens of thousands of Asian women into sexual slavery during World War II. Though he pledged to honor the Kono Statement--Japan's 1993 apology for the military brothels--and later apologized for the suffering of the "comfort women" (as they are euphemistically known in Japan), the damage was done. The Western media went ballistic.

Abe was responding, in part, to a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives by California Democrat Mike Honda, which demands that Tokyo apologize frankly for the wartime sex slavery. If Abe's comments were horrendous, so was his timing. Japan can justifiably claim the high ground in its dealings with North Korea, whose agents abducted at least 13 (and perhaps many more) Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. But Abe stained this moral clarity when he denied Japan's own record of kidnapping.

"It's extremely bad politics internationally," says a former Bush administration official. According to this official, who is very pro-Japan, the chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks on North Korea, Christopher Hill, believes Japan is "isolated" and "radioactive." Other senior Asia hands at Foggy Bottom reportedly share this opinion.

Yet that seems overstated. Thanks in part to its foreign aid and burgeoning internationalism, Japan now commands remarkable goodwill, especially in Southeast Asia. According to a BBC World Service Poll released in early March, 84 percent of Indonesians and 70 percent of Filipinos consider Japan a "mainly positive" global influence, as do 66 percent of Americans. Its image may be mud in China and South Korea, but Australia, India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore are all pursuing closer ties.

By foolishly donning the revisionist historian's cap, Abe distracted attention from his foreign policy, which Foreign Minister Taro Aso likes to call "value-oriented diplomacy." Abe speaks frequently of Japan's "new values"--"freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law"--and advocates a quadrilateral strategic dialogue among the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. On March 13, he signed a defense pact with Australian prime minister John Howard, the first formal Japanese security agreement with a country other than America. On April 16, the United States, Japan, and India staged their first joint naval exercise.

Indeed, the best safeguard against dangerous Japanese nationalism has always been a healthy U.S. alliance. And Abe believes "it is essential that Japan strengthen its alliance with the United States," calling the bilateral relationship "invaluable and irreplaceable." Boosting U.S.-Japan relations has been the heart of Bush's East Asia strategy since he took office. But now many Japanese worry that Washington is undermining their position on North Korea.