Much good news is emanating from Japan, one of America's most important allies, though some of it comes with an unnecessary taint. After decades of economic stagnation and foreign policy reticence stemming from its postwar legacy of pacifism, Japan is back as a strong and confident alliance partner.
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's vigorous leadership, democratic, free market, human rights-conscious Japan is shedding the counter-productive inhibitions of its postwar pacifism and embracing greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional peace and security.
Facing rising threats from China and North Korea, Japan is increasing its military budget and preparing, if necessary, to employ those assets to safeguard regional freedom of navigation and aviation. In three instances, Tokyo has gone further than Washington: publicly criticizing China’s complicity in North Korea’s nuclear program; pledging to assist the Philippines against Chinese interference with freedom of the seas; and defying China’s illegal imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Japan, like the U.S. but unlike China, supports Southeast Asian nations’ push toward a code of conduct to avoid maritime disputes.
Abe has also managed to cut the Gordian knot on the relocation of U.S. forces on Okinawa to a more viable location, thereby preserving the foundation of the U.S.- Japan security alliance. Under Abe’s predecessors, Tokyo had already committed to assist a U.S. defense of Taiwan, declaring it a “common strategic objective” encompassed by the U.S.-Japan security arrangement
Washington has reciprocated by assuring Japan it will oppose Chinese military action to assert its claim to the Japanese-administered Senkaku-Diayou islands. Beijing has become accustomed to declaring “core interests,” imposing red lines, and warning others of dire consequences. It now confronts two powerful democratic allies joining to declare their own overarching red line: any use of force by China to impose its will on regional issues (Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, South China Sea) will be met with an appropriate collective military response.
Beyond the security realm, Japan's Self-Defense Forces also contribute to the common good by providing humanitarian assistance to neighbors hurt by natural disasters. Japan was a leader in the Philippines relief effort after Typhoon Haiyan, just as Taiwan was the leading contributor when Japan was hit by the 2010 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.
In both cases, China, for all its new wealth and military capabilities, provided paltry aid—even though it had been the recipient of major international assistance after its own 2008 earthquake and blizzards. In its generous use of economic and military assets for humanitarian purposes, Japan has proved to be the responsible stakeholder the world has long waited for China to become.
Amid those positive developments in the emergence of Japan as the model of a strong democratic partner, there is the unfortunate revival of some very bad history, maliciously exploited by China, insistently clung to by South Korea, and gratuitously served up by Japan.
The Japanese prime minister chose to fan the flames by his recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine which honors not only Japanese war dead but convicted war criminals who inflicted great suffering on the Korean and Chinese people and the populations of Southeast Asia during World War II.
Abe’s visit succeeded in tarnishing democratic Japan's admirable image by linking it to Imperial Japan's shameful record, forcing the world to revisit that painful period and taking democratic Asian eyes off the real and present dangers posed by their aggressive authoritarian neighbors.
Abe likely calculated that no matter what Japan says or does, China will never let go of the bone of history since gnawing at it keeps the Chinese people focused on past and potential future external enemies. Beijing prefers that the Chinese people continue to relive the Rape of Nanjing than to recall the tens of millions who later perished under the polices of Mao Zedong, whose portrait still dominates Tiananmen Square—or the massacre of students that occurred in that hallowed place under Deng Xiaoping’s rule.
For less sinister reasons, South Korea also maintains its deep-seated sense of grievance against Japan which it feels, with substantial justification, has not sufficiently acknowledged or atoned for its sexual exploitation of Korean "comfort women." America’s democratic allies might take a page from the late Nelson Mandela’s book on unifying former enemies. East Asian security could use a little more truth from Japan and a measure of reconciliation from South Korea.
While Abe alone bears responsibility for the Shrine visit and its regional political consequences, U.S. leaders are not above displaying a cavalier attitude to Japanese sensitivities and interests, as they demonstrated twice in recent weeks.
Given Japan’s critical importance to U.S. security interests in Asia, the administration's failure to appoint an experienced foreign policy heavyweight as ambassador was a significant, and even reckless, slight to the Japanese government and people.
Further, when China announced its ADIZ, Tokyo instructed Japan’s civilian airlines to ignore it and continue normal commercial operations. Washington acted at cross-purposes with its leading ally. While sending B-52s through China’s declared zone to assert legitimate military prerogatives, U.S. officials advised American carriers to honor China’s new air rules. That decision gave Beijing’s action the patina of legitimacy and had the effect of suggesting cool U.S. restraint by contrast to Tokyo’s “belligerent” defiance.
None of that justifies or excuses Abe’s Yasukuni blunder. The Philippines, which suffered grievously under Japanese occupation, has moved on. The U.S. has its own bitter memories--Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March come to mind—and reading the account of history at the Shrine brings them back. Americans and most of the world are glad to distinguish between Japan’s democratic and imperial generations, if only its leaders would stop linking them.