The Debate

Shinzo Abe: Friend or Foe of the United States?

The Japanese prime minister espouses a view of history that seems to repudiate much that Americans hold dear.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to project the image of a steadfast friend and ally of America, in contrast to his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) predecessors.  

Though it is unfair to claim that the DPJ was anti-American, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are indeed focused on a firmer political and military partnership with Washington. The Japanese cabinet has pushed forward the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), seeks to solve the Okinawa basing issues, and emphasizes the vital importance of Japan-US Security Treaty.

But ironically, at the same the time, the Abe team’s inclinations threaten the Japan-US alliance.

Abe wants to take Japan away from the “postwar regime.”  But what is the postwar order? Fundamentally, it is the constitution and a set of liberal reforms enacted under the US occupation. American officials under General Douglas MacArthur worked closely with Japanese reformers. They built on the achievements of the Meiji Restoration to transform the dysfunctional imperial state into a more effective and stable parliamentary democracy that has been Japan’s most successful regime ever. Abe’s dislike of this regime is a clear rejection of American ideas.

The United States has many partners whose norms are incompatible with current American values. For example, Saudi Arabia, an intolerant theocracy whose practices are antithetical to nearly all Americans, works closely with the U.S. Nevertheless, the closest American allies have generally been with states that share the same liberal democratic orientation of the U.S.

Abe is not about to bring despotism to Japan. But his virulent hatred of the American-drafted basic law reflects a heartfelt desire to move back to some of the prewar principles that most Americans, rightly or wrongly, find unappealing.

Abe also has a very different understanding of Japan’s 1931-45 history from most foreigners (and many Japanese). One aspect is a devotion to the Yasukuni Shrine, whose deities include Japanese leaders executed for war crimes by the United States, and doubts about whether Japan invaded neighboring countries during that period. Though Abe himself has not – so far – set foot at Yasukuni as prime minister, he sent an offering to the shrine. Abe has not formally repudiated the “Kono statement,” whereby Japan admitted that its wartime military had enslaved foreign women, or former premier Murayama’s declaration expressing remorse for past Japanese actions. But though every Abe utterance is followed by some damage-control declaration by his spokespersons, he and his supporters have made it explicitly clear that they dislike this “masochistic” perception of Japanese history.  

Abe’s contempt for the legacy of General MacArthur and his “revisionist” views on history are perhaps not, at least in his own mind, incompatible with a pro-American stance. They follow in the footsteps of the object of his worship, his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi served in General Tojo’s cabinet, was arrested as a suspected war criminal, but was later released and ended his career as prime minister and a stalwart defender of the American alliance. But the inescapable fact is that Abe’s behavior undermine U.S. goals, and for that matter Japanese ones as well, for several reasons.

First, Japan and the United States seek to build as large a coalition as possible to contain China. It may be that the Chinese menace will prove ephemeral, but understandably Tokyo and Washington must prepare for the worst. Abe’s pronouncements on history make it harder to bring South Korea, the most valuable partner in dealing with China in Northeast Asia, into this coalition, given the sensitivity in Korea of Japanese attitudes towards the past. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s pilgrimage to Yasukuni, after having attended to inauguration of President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, was a slap in the face of Korea.

Second, although it is hard to believe that the Communist autocrats in Beijing are morally outraged about these questions given their own party's history, there will still be over a billion Chinese after the Communist Party is gone. The United States and Japan have a stake in good relations with post-communist China. It is thus critical that the Chinese people perceive Japan as a friendly nation, rather than as a country ruled by men who feel pride rather than shame about Japanese deeds in China during the 1931-45 war.

Third, and most important, Abe is laying the groundwork for diminishing American support for Japan. Experts know that, despite his rhetoric, he is no warmonger. Japanese hawks like Abe are in fact more reluctant to resort to force than American doves. The world would surely be a better place if every country on the planet were as peaceful as Japan. But their words make them seem particularly nefarious. Already, his efforts have earned him a nasty editorial about his “inability to face history” in the Washington Post on April 26. A well-orchestrated media campaign by China, or by various activists in the U.S., would find it easy to use Abe to link today’s Japan with the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanjing, and by association with Auschwitz and the Holocaust. This could have dreadful consequences for Japan’s image in the United States and ultimately sabotage the alliance with the United States.

Robert Dujarric runs the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, in Tokyo ([email protected])