The fact that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized so unabashedly to American victims of his country's World War II aggression while acknowledging crimes against their Asian victims in much looser terms has once again drawn the ire of Japan's immediate neighbors.
In his much-anticipated U.S. congressional address delivered in late April, Abe assiduously avoided terms such as "colonial rule," "invasion" and "heartfelt apology" which have characterized past high-profile attempts by his predecessors to express contrition for Japan's war crimes. The prime minister was also remiss in failing to mention Japanese soldiers' coercion of tens of thousands of the euphemistically-termed "comfort women" into sexual slavery.
Abe's speech, predictably, roused criticism from Seoul and Beijing in Asia, not to mention from historians and human rights commentators internationally. Despite this, the prime minister was likely satisfied with his U.S. performance, as he has successfully executed a strategy to get the world's only superpower to draw Japan closer to its bosom.
After all, from Abe's perspective, the affirmation of a stronger U.S.-Japanese military alliance and his position as the first Japanese leader in history to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress will now surely galvanize his authority in Japanese politics.
This is not the first time that Abe has played favorites with Washington, even with Japan's own national interests hanging in the balance. After tip-toeing around the issue for some time, Japan had decided not to apply for a founding membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) preceding the March 31 deadline. Conversely, Britain and other European members of the G7 industrialized nations demonstrated less hesitancy in joining the China-led institute.
This--on the face of it, baffling--decision is made more explicable in the light of recent remarks made by Abe. During a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), he announced to all assembled that "the United States now knows that Japan is trustworthy."
Abe's move has seemingly gone against the tide of expectations in Japan's business circles. Many have questioned whether or not securing the approval of Washington should be the ultimate goal of Abe's policy and if that policy is more so in the interests of Japan, or its prime minister.
But this is not merely appeasement for appeasement's sake. Abe's pivot to the United States, though potentially detrimental to Japan in the short term, undoubtedly has longer-term goals in sight.
Looking back at Abe's policies over the past two years, at the core of his leadership lies a desire to return Japan to its prewar status as a "normal country." Steps taken toward this end have included whitewashing Japanese war crimes and rebuilding his country's military power. Since taking office as Japan's head of government for the second time, Abe's underlying agenda has become evident in his paying tribute at the Yasukuni Shrine, in his attempts to popularize and legitimize a series of historical revisionist textbooks in the country's schools, in his attempts to scrub controversies like the abuse of "comfort women" from his nation's collective memory and-- even more alarmingly--orchestrate the reinterpretation of Article 9 of Japan's post-war pacifist Constitution, which expressly forbids belligerency.
Though the misgivings of his neighbors are not high on Abe's present list of priorities, one country whose opinion he does have to take into account is the United States, the country which turned the tide in the Allies' favor in WWII.
Abe's push toward historical revisionism has occasionally ruffled feathers in Washington, too. Making U.S. politicians feel at ease has thus become a major hurdle Abe needs to surmount to fulfill his ambitions. Within this context, Abe's performance in the Capitol Hill and his attitude toward the AIIB become more comprehensible.
Now an opportunity has been provided to Abe in the form of the U.S. "pivot to Asia" strategy, which aims to address U.S. strategic deficiencies in the region. During his Washington trip, Abe offered perhaps the most robust endorsement by any Asian leader of the plan. Japan was also awarded a revised U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation agreement by Washington. The renewed bilateral defense guidelines, which allow Japan to take a much more assertive role in U.S.-led military operations in the region and beyond, almost achieved his so-called strategy of proactive pacifism which would allow him to bolster the country's Self-Defense Forces, a step toward Japan becoming the "normal country" he envisages.
Moreover, the prime minister's tentative popularity in the United States has also scored him political brownie points domestically. At present, his LDP dominates the Japanese political landscape and Washington hailing him a decisive leader has only consolidated his position within the party. With U.S. support, Abe is paving the way for his final dream of repealing of the restrictions imposed by the Japanese Constitution and leading his country to once more becoming a political and military power.
As it stands, a total rewriting of Japan's wartime narrative--one that glosses over the crime and atrocities committed--is still within Abe's reach. Should this occur, the United States might find that its new political bedfellow has, re-designated it as a chief culprit in Japanese WWII history books with Japan being instead painted the conflict's greatest victim.
Copyedited by Eric Daly
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