Since the end of the Cold War, Japan’s diplomacy, defense posture, and international roles have changed markedly. Over time, Japan has loosened restrictions on the use of its Self Defense Force, allowing units to be used for peacekeeping and in overseas disaster relief; expanded its interpretation of Article 9 to make cooperation with the U.S. in a number of contingencies more permissible; and loosened restrictions on weapons sales and weapons development cooperation.
These moves have often been pragmatic, gradual steps to meet a changing international climate. However, despite generally positive changes in defense and diplomacy, there is a consensus that Japan is regressing on issues of history, and that its stance on issues such as Yasukuni, the Nanjing massacre, or the comfort women issue has isolated the country from potential allies and undermined its influence in the region.
There was nothing inevitable about this trajectory. During the early to mid 1990s, when the Kono Statement on Comfort Women and the Murayama Statement on war responsibility were issued, there was a perception that Japan was finally facing up to its past. However, under the conservative governments of Koizumi Junichiro (2001-2006) and now the second Abe Shinzo administration (2012-present), Japan has needlessly tarnished its reputation with official visits to Yasukuni Shrine and through intimations that the Abe Shinzo government hopes to ultimately revise the Murayama Statement.
The damage done to Japan by visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine has been extensively analyzed and debated here, here, and here. Despite the apprehensions of the U.S., Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine in each year of his prime ministership. Though Abe refrained from visiting the shrine during his first run as prime minister, he has since rejected the advice of the U.S. and went in December 2013.
These visits are not entirely irrational. There is a widely held belief in conservative circles that even if Japan softens its stance on history, the political benefits in terms of warmer relations with China and South Korea are limited, and that no official apology for wartime aggression will ever be enough. In both South Korea and China, elites have long used the “Japan threat” for domestic political purposes and are loath to give it up. Moreover, at a time when Japan is suffering from a number of seemingly intractable problems – from persistent economic troubles to low birthrates to political dysfunction – appeals to narrow nationalism can often serve as a temporary political balm, a way for prime ministers to seemingly demonstrate independence and strength.
However, the one international reaction Japanese conservatives cannot afford to ignore is the reaction of the U.S. One of the reasons that Japan’s right-wing leaders have been able to get away with a regressive stance on the history issue is that they have by and large been the more effective political leaders, and in addition, have been the most overt and effective supporters of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The same Koizumi and Abe administrations that have insisted on visits to Yasukuni have also been the greatest cheerleaders for the U.S. alliance and have delivered tangible results for the alliance in the form of the dispatch of units to the Indian Ocean and Iraq, initiatives on ballistic missile defense, political support for the war on terror, and support on the base relocation issue. As Yakushiji Katsuyuki reports, it was no accident that Abe’s visit to Yasukuni came only a day after he was able to break the logjam over the Futenma Air Base relocation issue.
Indeed, the U.S.-Japan relationship creates an odd mixture of incentives and calculations. Because the U.S. is seen as a safe ally in a turbulent world, U.S.-Japan relations are seen as Japan’s most fundamental foreign relationship. However, the strong relationship between the U.S. and Japan has created a degree of moral hazard in the relationship of Japanese leaders with their neighbors.
Typically, prime ministers who have been progressive on the question of history have been dubious supporters of the military aspects of the U.S.-Japan alliance. They have also been less cognizant of the need for defense reforms that would modernize Japan’s armed forces, make them more complementary to U.S. forces in the area, and ease legal restrictions on their use. Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi, the pioneer of the Murayama Statement of 1995, was hamstrung in his support of the alliance by the pacifist base of the then-Japan Socialist Party. Perhaps one of the most progressive prime ministers on the subject of history, Hatoyama Yukio, will largely be remembered for trying to put distance between Japan and the U.S. in favor of China—a decision that proved a strategic and political mistake (some have called it a fiasco). His “yu-ai” diplomacy did much to fray the U.S. alliance, but the gains with South Korea and China were limited. More importantly, improved ties with these countries could not provide him with the political capital he needed to extend his prime ministership in the wake of mismanagement of an important military aspect of the U.S.-Japan relationship – specifically the Futenma Base relocation issue. In short, Hatoyama’s administration was over before any meaningful progress could be made on the history issue.
What is needed more than anything else, in the interests of both the U.S. and Japan, is a leader who is a conservative on defense but a progressive on history. This strategy is needed not only because a progressive agenda on the history issue would benefit the alliance more generally and undercut nationalism in East Asia, but also because a political partnership with the U.S. would help any politician wishing to fight conservative political elites on the history issue. There is no getting around it: “gaiatsu” or the threat of “gaiatsu” (which can be either positively translated as “support” or negatively interpreted as “pressure” from the U.S.) has often been a necessary element of strong political reforms. Thus far, the U.S. has only tepidly waded into the history issue. A Japanese leader devoted to improving the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japanese defense capabilities and addressing the history issue would create an opportunity for robust support by U.S. officials.
Japan should continue to gradually reform its defense posture while simultaneously seeking to address its view of history and its institutions for honoring its war dead. The sequencing of this strategy is important: Japanese leaders should address history as a domestic issue and use it to bolster the relationship with the U.S. before seeking reconciliation with other countries such as South Korea and China.
The objective should be creating policies that can maintain a progressive view of history, restore honor to Japan in the region, and garner public support. Such policies should recognize not only the sacrifice of Japanese soldiers, but also the sacrifice of other foreign soldiers, and display Japan’s interest in not reverting back to a period of racism and destructive conquest.
As power continues to shift toward China and Japan struggles with a moribund economy and a shrinking population, Japan will need strong leadership that can stand up to narrow nationalism. A continuation of Japan’s current vacillations on the history issue will not only undermine trust from neighbors like China and South Korea, but will increasingly undermine the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in Strategic Insights, Asian Politics and Policy, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, and Culture and Conflict Review.