Abe’s US visit tests willingness to face history

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2015-4-26 22:28:02

It isn't just Asia that awaits Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's unprecedented address to a Joint Session of the US Congress on April 29. The US, no less than China and South Korea, is seeking an honest Japanese reckoning with history.

The focus of Abe's state visit will be on trade and security, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and finalizing the new US-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines to update the bilateral alliance. 

But Abe's credibility, underpinning the US-Japan alliance, Japan's new National Security Strategy, and the hope of improving China-Japan and Japan-South Korea relations rest in large measure on how he deals with Japan's history on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.

Abe's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Jakarta on April 22 was a sign of intent by both leaders that they seek to put Sino-Japanese relations on a more positive trajectory.

As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in a recent interview with the Financial Times, the 70th anniversary is "both a test and an opportunity" for Sino-Japanese relations. 

It won't be just China and South Korea scrutinizing every word of Abe's address to the US Congress, but the US itself.

The US has seen skirmishes over history with Japan play out of late. US scholars protested when Japan's Foreign Ministry asked to retract a McGraw-Hill history text because of its discussion of "comfort women." Similarly, the Virginia and New York state legislatures were lobbied by Japan when they changed the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea in US textbooks.

One indicator of US concern is an April 23 letter to Japanese Ambassador to the US Kenichiro Sasae from congressman Mike Honda, himself of Japanese descent, signed by 24 members of the US Congress.

The letter urges Abe to embrace the previous apologies in Murayama and Kono statements to "squarely face history," and suggests Abe use the 70th anniversary of WWII milestone "to enhance Japan's relations with its neighbors through a vision of long overdue healing and reconciliation."

All this raises a question fundamental to East Asia's future: What would be necessary for China, Korea and other victims of Japanese imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s to conclude that Japan has reckoned itself to history?

Often debates about the past find Japanese arguing over details about the use of comfort women or the number of dead in specific acts of aggression. Such responses, and under Abe, many raising questions about settled history, loom larger than all the apologies Japan has made and reparations paid in the post-WWII period. And it's sometimes forgotten that Japan is a democracy and revisionist views are held by a small minority of extremists, not the Japanese public as a whole.

Many are hoping Abe conveys sincere regret and make a solemn pledge, as he did in a well-received speech to the Australian Parliament in 2014:

"We will never let the horrors of the past century's history repeat themselves. This vow that Japan made after the war is still fully alive today. It will never change going forward. There is no question at all about this point ... I can find absolutely no words to say. I can only stay humble against the evils and horrors of history."

Many Japanese have difficulty understanding why their neighbors don't give them more credit for being an exemplary global citizen over the past 70 years.

Japan has a peace constitution, has not engaged in any foreign military action since 1945, maintains one of the world's largest foreign aid programs, and Tokyo's economic success has helped drive Asia's economic dynamism and integration over the past four decades.

This record will no doubt be cited by Abe when he speaks in the US, and he will emphasize a vision of a cooperative future.

The burden is on Abe to exorcise the past. But how high is the bar Abe and Japan must get over before East Asia heals from the past and focuses on the future?

The author is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council from 2008-12. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter at @Rmanning4.

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus