The Blog

Tokyo Drift?

Why the "history issue" shouldn't discredit Japan's new foreign policy.

12:00 AM, Apr 9, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THIS PAST JANUARY, speaking to the North Atlantic Council, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid out an admirable vision for Japanese foreign policy. "We have to elevate democracy in places where it is emerging; consolidate respect for human rights where it is suppressed; and offer hope for a brighter future in situations where people are yielding to despair," Abe said. "Our aim is to create a safer world where every individual can live with pride. To make this goal a reality, we need to be dynamic, and never fear casting off the shackles of dogma that we have long taken for granted. My country is ready to meet the world's rising expectations for our enhanced role in the international community." Unfortunately for Abe and other Japanese conservatives, playing that "enhanced role" in the future may require a deeper and more forthright scrutiny of the past.

Thanks in part to its foreign aid policies and burgeoning internationalism, Japan now commands remarkable global goodwill, especially in Southeast Asia. Abe hopes to spearhead a Japanese freedom agenda in that part of the world, while bolstering strategic ties with countries (principally the U.S., India, and Australia) that share "such fundamental values as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law." In order to facilitate a more robust security program, and better address the challenges posed by China and North Korea, he wants to revise the pacifist Article 9 of Japan's MacArthur-era constitution.

Critics suggest this will lead to "remilitarization." But Japan already has a military, known as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which has been deployed overseas for peacekeeping missions several times since the early 1990s. After 9/11, Japan sent SDF naval ships to the war in Afghanistan and SDF ground troops to the war in Iraq, both in noncombat roles. Long criticized for not making its fair share of global contributions, Japan demonstrated a willingness to do more. As former Economist editor and Japan expert Bill Emmott wrote in April 2004, the Iraq mission seemed to indicate that Japan would "play a fuller role internationally" and "truly be part of an international community."

Abe's proposed constitutional tinkering is relatively modest and incremental: He would keep the "No War" pledge, but would also make it easier for Japan to pursue collective self-defense and integrate the SDF into multilateral frameworks. Overall Japanese defense spending is still capped at an artificially low level. "The claims of Japanese 'remilitarization' are both inaccurate and overblown," says Michael Auslin, director of the Project on Japan-U.S. Relations at Yale. "It's a very prudent and responsible buildup that is still defensively oriented."

In short, Abe's basic agenda, building on the legacy of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, is healthy for Asia and healthy for global security. It is certainly healthy for the U.S.-Japan alliance. But Abe also gives credence to Japan's World War II revisionists. He regards the postwar Tokyo Trials with suspicion, and has unapologetically visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a private Shinto religious memorial that honors roughly 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including several war criminals from the Pacific theater such as Hideki Tojo. Many have observed that Abe, 52, is the first Japanese premier born after Hiroshima. We should also remember that his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served as minister of commerce and industry during the war, and later became prime minister from 1957 to 1960.

So when, a few weeks ago, Abe whitewashed a terrible blight on Japan's war record, he needlessly raised red flags about his intentions and gave detractors fresh ammunition to cast him as a dangerous nationalist. Inside the Bush administration, the ensuing diplomatic row has placed pro-Japan officials on the defensive.