The High-Wire Washington Visit of Japan's Prime Minister

COMMENTARY Global Politics

The High-Wire Washington Visit of Japan's Prime Minister

Apr 30, 2015 3 min read
Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia

Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia.

History will be made today. For the first time, a leader of Japan will address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Such recognition of a critical U.S. ally in Asia is long overdue.

Japan's phoenix-like rise from the devastation of war is a testament to the country's policymakers and citizens. Japan has blossomed into a vibrant democracy and the world's third-largest economy. Yet amid the excitement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's U.S. visit, there is also some trepidation over the degree to which he will handle issues of history that remain contentious.

Abe has much ground to cover in his address. Japan has been the exemplar of a responsible nation for 70 years. Eschewing the violent militarism that led to catastrophe in the 20th Century, Tokyo embraced passive foreign and security policies. The bilateral alliance has been a linchpin of American national interests in Asia, including the maintenance of peace and stability - but Japan has come to depend upon the United States for much of its defense.

Washington has long urged Tokyo to assume a larger role in its own defense and to be more active in addressing regional and global security concerns. Abe has overcome Japan's national lethargy to fulfill some long-promised revisions to its national security posture.

Indeed, Abe's visit is expected to coincide with the announcement of revised alliance guidelines, the first since 1997. The revisions will build on Japan's foundation of good behavior and will incorporate the country's growing security capabilities.

One key tenet is the implementation of "collective self-defense" - essentially, Tokyo grants itself the ability to help defend those nations who are defending Japan or engaging in U.N. peacekeeping operations. The United States welcomes these changes, seeing the ability to work more closely with our Japanese defense partner as beneficial to both nations, as well as to the broader region.

Japan's troubled past, however, makes its neighbors wary of any change to the country's Self Defense Forces. Tokyo and Washington have endeavored to explain how Japan's security changes, which have deep roots in the U.S. alliance and are carried out in concert with U.S. forces in Japan, pose no threat to the region. A more expansive public diplomacy is called for to dispel the many misperceptions that have taken root.

Though speaking to American lawmakers, Abe's audience will be far larger; his Asian neighbors will be listening closely as well. He will therefore need to assuage regional suspicions and animosities arising from perceived Japanese "backsliding" - other nations' sense that Japan has not atoned sufficiently for its wartime actions. Japanese tensions with China and South Korea are typically cyclical, with periodic flare-ups, but the situation has deteriorated precipitously in recent years.

Questions linger about Abe's "true intentions." He has affirmed previous administrations' statements of remorse for Japan's wartime aggression and coercion of women into sexual slavery. Yet Abe and other policymakers have questioned the evidence upon which those statements were based.

Abe is unlikely to dwell on these issues in an American setting. Yes, his U.S. audience would welcome acknowledgement of the past, combined with praise for the bilateral alliance and for U.S. defense of Japan. But Americans generally have no expectation of receiving extensive apologies for actions taken before Abe was born. Indeed, such expressions could be seen as reopening old wounds.

Yet Japan's neighbors, most notably South Korea and China, might see Abe as proffering a revisionist narrative of the past by not addressing their historical grievances during his U.S. visit. Such an interpretation would exacerbate ongoing regional tensions and further complicate U.S. security interests. Mr. Abe faces a tricky situation: His speech will be dissected for what he says and for what he does not say.

It is proper for Abe to highlight Japan's accomplishments during the seven decades that followed the war, and to affirm his country's intent to play an even large role in addressing future security challenges. But the prime minister should also embrace the opportunity to unequivocally affirm support for Japan's atonement for the past.

He should, for example, include key phrases from the Murayama and Kono statements if he hopes to facilitate reconciliation with Japan's neighbors and expand his country's global role. Abe's speech to the Australian Parliament last July provides a model for his Congressional speech. In Canberra, Abe's reference to two painful Australian memories of World War II earned praise and helped to cement stronger bilateral ties.

The United States finds itself on the horns of a dilemma, balancing the concerns of critical northeast Asian allies. During last year's trip to Asia, U.S. President Barack Obama emphatically condemned Japan's wartime coercion of sex slaves - euphemistically called comfort women - and Washington has repeatedly called on Tokyo to atone for the past. Despite this, some of the South Korean press accuses Washington of "adopting Japan's view of history."

The reconciliation of Japan and the United States - once the most bitter of enemies - provides an encouraging example of how even difficult and painful differences can be bridged. Let us hope the prime minister uses the congressional podium both to address the past and to provide a vision of cooperation for the future.

 - Jim DeMint is president of The Heritage Foundation.

 - Bruce Klingner is the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in Heritage's Asian Studies Center.

Originally appeared in Realclearworld