Japan's Daunting Challenge
THE RETURN to power of Japan’s conservatives has once again spurred hope that the country can restore its role as an economic powerhouse and the northern anchor of a rebalanced American presence in East Asia. A revitalized Japan could act as a weighty counter to China’s apparent determination to assert itself as the new regional hegemon. The newly installed government, under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) banner, offers prospects for more stable and competent governance after years of turbulence and lack of leadership.
But there are grounds also for a high degree of caution, not only about the advent of stable leadership but also about where Japan is headed. The new government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embraces contradictory national impulses. In the realm of economics, Abe’s cabinet includes supporters of a return to old-style pork-barrel spending and export-led growth policies. But it also includes reformers who favor deregulation and open markets to force Japan to compete more efficiently in the global economy. In foreign policy, the cabinet encompasses pragmatic realists who want to expand Japan’s security role in close coordination with the United States as well as revisionist nationalists who hanker for a face-off with China and express provocatively unrepentant views about Japan’s wartime record.
It is unclear how Abe will resolve these conflicting pulls, especially under the pressure of forthcoming upper-house elections. It isn’t even clear just where he personally stands on such matters.
Americans may dream of a pragmatically conservative Japan that restores its economic health through freer trade and offers a reliable security partner for a policy of engaging China while constraining its aggressive expansionism in East Asia. But they could get a nightmare instead—a fortress Japan, isolated within Asia by its nationalism, protecting an economy beset by public debt and an aging populace.
The choices facing Japan today must be set against the backdrop of two decades of stagnation and often-faltering reform efforts. The Japan of the late 1980s, its system praised in business-management books and its arrival as the new global superpower trumpeted on the cover of weekly newsmagazines, seems like a distant memory. The early 1990s punctured the confidence, even arrogance, that had swelled the heads of Japanese policy makers. The state-directed and export-led economy ground to a halt amid the wreckage of the asset bubbles created by the 1985 revaluation of the yen. Persistent stagnation also upended a political system of single-party rule and bureaucrat-led governance. The crisis occurred in tandem with the end of the Cold War, which called into question postwar Japan’s foreign-policy anchor, its security alliance with the United States.
In 1993, Japan entered a period of political change, beginning with the emergence of its first, short-lived non-LDP government. Less than a year later, the LDP returned to power, first in coalition with the Socialist Party and then with the Buddhist New Komei Party. Then, in the late 1990s, the opposition coalesced into the newly formed, center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). This represented a serious challenge to the LDP, although its decline was obscured by the unusual, five-year rule (2001–2006) of the personally popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, based on a policy of economic reform coupled with an assault on his own party’s axis with bureaucrats and agricultural-industry lobbies.
The LDP returned to its old ways, however, under a trio of short-lived premiers, starting with Koizumi’s chosen successor, Abe. Ironically, Abe brought back into the party those who had been ousted for opposing Koizumi’s pet project, the breakup and privatization of Japan’s public-banking and insurance oligopoly run under the aegis of the postal system. With the LDP disavowing Koizumi’s reformism, the door was opened for the DPJ, whose 2009 victory was hailed as the birth of a new era of two-party politics in Japan.
The DPJ came to power with an ambitious reform agenda. It advocated breaking up mandarin rule—“people not concrete”—in the allocation of government funds, pursuing global competition and looking for sources of growth in new industries. After the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, the DPJ government also embraced an anti-nuclear-power agenda and assailed the “nuclear village”—the cozy ties among bureaucrats, construction firms and regional power monopolies that the LDP had fostered. But the party’s inconsistency and incompetence led to its ignominious defeat in the December 2012 elections, with little of its agenda accomplished.
The greatest legacy of the DPJ’s three-year rule was the reemergence of a long-standing debate about Japan’s foreign policy. Its intellectual roots go back to the prewar period, but it continued in subdued form during the long LDP rule and intensified with the end of the Cold War. During much of the postwar period, Japanese foreign policy was a contest between pro-American, anti-Communist conservatives and the Japanese Left, led by the Socialist Party, which rejected the U.S.-Japanese security treaty and called for a pacifist vision of “unarmed neutrality.” The doctrine of Japan’s pro-American and pro-British postwar leader Shigeru Yoshida became the consensus: Japan would focus on economic reconstruction by relying on the United States for its defense—and pay for it by giving America access to its soil for strategic bases.
The Yoshida Doctrine retains an iconic status in Japan. But below the surface, many Japanese of all political stripes were never comfortable with a strategy of reflexive dependence on the United States. On one side, Yoshida faced stiff opposition from nationalist conservatives who accepted the necessity of the alliance in the name of anti-Communism but fundamentally rejected the postwar settlement enforced by the American occupation. From the first days following the 1952 restoration of Japanese sovereignty, these nationalists sought to roll back the keystones of that American legacy: the American-authored revision of the Japanese constitution, particularly Article 9, which renounced war as an instrument of national policy; the judgments of Japanese war criminality imposed by the Tokyo war-crimes tribunal; and the educational reforms imposed by the occupation and enforced by the left-wing teachers union. Many of these nationalists had served in the wartime regime and were allowed to return to politics only by America’s Cold War decision to rally anti-Communist forces in Japan against the Left; prominent among those anti-Yoshida conservatives was Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister from 1957–1960 and is beloved by Abe, his grandson.
THESE DIVISIONS have their roots in a historic Japanese debate about identity that goes back well before World War II. One camp represents what can be broadly called Asianism, a belief that Japan’s identity and strategic interests lie in Asia. Conversely, others have argued that Japan, as an offshore maritime nation ready to adapt Western technology and ideas, should ally with the Western powers. Faced with the threat of Western imperialism, and noting disdainfully the failure of China and Korea to reform themselves to meet that threat, Yukichi Fukuzawa, the intellectual leader of Japan’s nineteenth-century Meiji transformation into a modern state, famously argued in 1885: “We do not have time to wait for the enlightenment of our neighbors so that we can work together toward the development of Asia. It is better for us to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with civilized nations of the West.”
Japan’s Asianists were themselves divided. The “greater Asianism” camp advocated imperial advance on the Asian mainland, with Japan as the self-proclaimed liberator and protector of Asia from Western colonialism. Its victory over pro-Western liberals led to the tragedy of World War II in Asia. But there was also a small camp of anti-imperial Asianists led by the prewar journalist Tanzan Ishibashi, who opposed territorial expansion while expressing sympathy for the Asian nationalism of Sun Yat-sen and others. Those debates continued among conservatives, though now reflecting postwar realities, throughout the latter decades of the U.S. partnership.
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War cast the Japanese adrift. Most people in the country finally accepted the legitimacy and necessity of the U.S.-Japanese security treaty and a limited role for Japan’s military. In doing so, they also reinvigorated the debate among conservatives about the need for Japan to act more forcefully—and for some more independently—in its foreign and security role. Some conservatives began questioning the need to maintain Cold War levels of U.S. troop deployments, not only in Japan but also in Europe. That debate intensified after several American servicemen raped a Japanese preteen in Okinawa in 1995.
The DPJ founders represented both liberal and conservative advocates of greater self-reliance, a kind of Japanese Gaullism. Some talked of an “alliance without bases,” in which Japanese forces would be responsible for self-defense and U.S. forces would use bases and storage facilities in emergencies such as a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Despite the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995–1996, in which the People’s Republic of China fired a series of test missiles into the Taiwan Strait as a warning to Taiwan about pursuing an overt two-China policy, the DPJ founders optimistically hoped that the region was headed toward resolving the legacy of the Cold War, both in Korea and with China. A key part of this “new Asianism,” as I have termed it elsewhere, was the advocacy of East Asian regionalism and the creation of an East Asian community based on the model of the European Union.
The most profound difference between Japan’s major parties was the DPJ’s readiness to address Japan’s history in Asia, whereas the LDP’s ranks included many outright defenders of Japan’s colonial and wartime expansionism of the 1930s and 1940s. The DPJ led the rebuke of former air force chief of staff Toshio Tamogami for publishing an essay defending Japan’s wartime aggression, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. After Koizumi paid homage to Japan’s war dead at the Shinto Yasukuni shrine, the DPJ called for easing tensions with China and Korea by creating a secular national cemetery and removing the names of Japanese war criminals from the list of enshrined souls at Yasukuni.
SUCH DISAGREEMENTS about how to treat the past actually represented a debate over Japan’s future direction. But mainstream Japanese policy remained anchored in the Yoshida Doctrine. Partly in response to American encouragement, Japan tried to become a Great Britain of Asia, an offshore balancer whose naval and other forces could more actively supplement American power. Following severe criticism of Japan’s decision not to extend military support to the UN coalition against Iraq in the first Gulf War, Japanese leaders incrementally removed some long-standing postwar barriers to the use of Japanese force beyond the constitutionally circumscribed mission of self-defense. Beginning with the 1992 dispatch of Japanese peacekeeping forces to Cambodia, Japan’s military has been used in limited missions overseas—a flotilla sent to the Indian Ocean to refuel international naval operations off Afghanistan; a small contingent to Iraq; and antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In all cases, the ban on collective self-defense did not allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of U.S. forces beyond the narrow defense of Japanese home territory, though they could serve abroad in logistical and peacekeeping roles. But the LDP is determined to reinterpret the constitution, as suggested by an advisory panel organized under Abe’s first premiership, to allow for the right to collective self-defense.
This “mission creep” outlook acquired significant momentum from the growing perception that China represented a gathering threat. This was compounded by North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests beginning in 1998. Japan’s official support for the Iraq War was motivated more by a desire to cement American backing than by any particular enthusiasm for the war itself. That was particularly the case from 2002–2005, when Sino-Japanese relations took a nosedive.
Many Japanese political and opinion leaders, including prominent conservatives, began to question this policy and the singular reliance on the U.S. alliance. During the George W. Bush years, Japanese policy makers increasingly feared that they would cede Asian leadership to China by overemphasizing the bilateral security relationship with the United States. While Washington focused on the Middle East and Southwest Asia after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, China moved with diplomatic skill to assert itself in the region. It improved ties with South Korea and Southeast Asian nations, reached free-trade agreements and reaped the benefits of its emergence as East Asia’s driver of economic growth.
Anti-Japanese riots in China in 2005 reflected the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese leaders worried that the Sino-Japanese rivalry could lead to serious conflict, including clashes over oil and gas rights in the East China Sea and over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The prospect alarmed the business community, with its deep investments in China and growing dependence on trade with China. American officials also worried that these tensions might threaten regional stability.
In the fevered anti-Chinese rhetoric of the nationalist Right, China supplanted the Soviet Union in a renewed Cold War–style containment strategy that anticipated an expanded Japanese security role in South and Southeast Asia and closer ties to India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia. This policy overlapped in part with the more classical Yoshida Doctrine role. But it is crucially different in its willingness to confront China and embrace a revisionist historical worldview that pits Japan against China and also South Korea, for whom the wartime resistance to Japanese colonialism remains an essential source of identity and a neuralgic issue in domestic politics.
Yet despite the rhetoric, an open containment strategy focused on China isn’t really feasible given the two countries’ economic interdependence. Indeed, some Japanese policy makers increasingly began to worry that the United States would abandon them in favor of China, a fear that grew in the last two years of the Bush administration. Japan did not want to be the anchor of an American hedging strategy toward China, only to be left in the lurch. Some Japanese officials feared a reprise of the “Nixon shock,” when Henry Kissinger made a surprise visit to Beijing just as Washington was warning Tokyo against normalizing relations with China. Japanese policy makers opted to hedge against both American abandonment and the rise of China, maintaining the security alliance while drawing China into regional and global economic and security structures.
JAPAN’S GROWING economic interdependence with China was manifest in Abe’s surprising visit to South Korea and China, his first overseas trip after taking office in 2006. Abe not only moved rapidly to improve diplomatic relations but also softened talk about historical revisionism and constitutional change. He even created a joint Sino-Japanese commission to discuss historical issues. Relations with South Korea benefited from Pyongyang’s alarming nuclear test in October 2006 and Abe’s willingness to put historical issues aside.
The succeeding DPJ governments under Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda largely followed in these footsteps, although with a greater readiness to deal with wartime issues. Kan issued a new statement of apology on the one hundredth anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, returned seized Korean artifacts and made other gestures intended to cement closer cooperation. Japan also actively courted India, Vietnam and others in East Asia, establishing military-to-military contacts, holding joint exercises and discussing security coordination.
The DPJ harbored a more benign view of the Chinese “threat” and believed, perhaps naively, that Japan’s more forthright approach to wartime historical issues would change the dynamic of the relationship. “There are issues between Japan and China that need to be resolved through frank discussion: the historical issue and the territorial issue,” then DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa told me in 2009.
Such talk fed an American perception that Japan under the DPJ was veering into a “pro-China” tilt, ready to couple the security alliance with a strategic partnership with China. The wrangle over Okinawa bases, combined with Hatoyama’s gauzy vision of an East Asian community based on “fraternity,” cemented that view. In reality, that vision flowed from a long-standing Japanese interest in East Asian regional integration, going back at least to the 1970s, when Japanese and Australian academics first promoted the concept. During the boom days of Japan’s economy, Japanese talked confidently about the formation of an Asian “yen zone” led by Japan. While Japanese confidence has dimmed amid its own economic stagnation and China’s rise, these ideas retain resonance.
Even in the past decade, LDP leaders have promoted this goal. In a 2002 address in Singapore, Koizumi envisioned a community formed by the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, together with Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—what later became the East Asian Summit with the addition of India. Six years later, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda inaugurated an annual triangular summit with China and South Korea.
American officials have viewed any form of Asian regionalism excluding Washington as a threat to create closed systems. DPJ administrations thus embraced an American-led trade grouping, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as a means of assuaging American concerns while responding to Chinese assertiveness. But due largely to opposition from within its own ranks and from powerful domestic interests, the DPJ was unable to fully join the ongoing multilateral negotiations on the pact.
These Asianist hopes foundered on American opposition and China’s assertive defense of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. China’s backing of Pyongyang after its military attacks on South Korea beginning in the spring of 2010 also alarmed Japanese leaders. For Japan, the turning point was China’s response to the 2010 arrest of a Chinese fishing-boat captain who had rammed Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Chinese leaders took the arrest as an unprecedented assertion of Japan’s territorial claim; past Japanese governments had carefully expelled Chinese activists and fishermen who trespassed. DPJ leaders, who expected the matter would be settled quickly, were stunned by the escalatory behavior that followed, including boycotts of Japanese goods, demonstrations and other forms of economic pressure.
Suddenly, talk of moving beyond the confines of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance subsided. “Problems that arise between Japan and the United States can, in the end, be resolved within the framework of the alliance,” wrote former Asahi Shimbun editor Yoichi Funabashi, an important voice in DPJ foreign-policy circles. “The alliance is the ballast. However, that cannot be said of the Japan-China relationship.” The 2010 national-defense policy, prepared under the DPJ, warned of the Chinese military buildup and proposed beefing up the defenses of southwestern Japan, the area of territorial tensions with China.
Still, important voices in the DPJ argued against a retreat from the Asianist vision. “What is more important than anything is that government officials in charge should be careful not to arouse narrow-minded, extreme nationalism in Japan, China and other countries,” Yoshito Sengoku, chief cabinet secretary at the time, told reporters following the fishing-boat incident. He stressed the importance of good ties between Asia’s two biggest economies: “We want to use all possible channels not to escalate the issue and to solve it for the sake of development in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.”
But attitudes toward China hardened within the DPJ, mirroring the broader society, and Noda captured this growing sentiment even before taking office. While acknowledging China’s market role and economic significance in Asia, he pointed to the country’s military buildup and “high-handed” posture in the South China Sea. Upon taking office, Noda sidelined any talk of an East Asian community, expressing undiminished allegiance to the U.S. security alliance and pushing a tough response to Chinese actions.
Not surprisingly, relations between the two countries deteriorated during Noda’s premiership. Tensions over the disputed islands flared ominously following Noda’s 2012 decision to nationalize several of the privately owned islets. The Japanese government portrayed this as a step to ease conflict by preempting a bid from the nationalist governor of Tokyo to buy the islands and put facilities on them. But the action triggered an orchestrated wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and terse diplomatic exchanges.
THE SIMULTANEOUS rise of tensions with South Korea disturbed American policy makers who were pushing for closer security ties between Seoul and Tokyo as a key element of America’s “rebalancing” in East Asia. But wartime history once again interfered with strategic logic. Pushed by a high-court ruling, the South Korean government had sought quietly to get Japan to compensate Korean women—the so-called comfort women—coerced into providing sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army. But this diplomatic effort fell apart at a December 2011 summit meeting between South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and Noda. In May 2012, a delegation of LDP Diet members, with the support of the Japanese foreign ministry, visited a small New Jersey town in a crude attempt to pressure local officials to remove a monument to the comfort women erected at the behest of the local Korean American community. Lee, pressured to respond and angered by what he saw as Noda’s personal snub, made a provocative visit in August to Korean-held islets that are claimed by Japan and postponed the signing of a minor bilateral agreement to share security intelligence.
Most Japanese and many Americans placed the onus for this flare-up on the Koreans, seen as overly emotional and too fixated on the past. But it’s important to note that Noda’s stance on wartime issues was closer to the LDP’s conservative nationalists than to his own party. The son of an army officer, Noda held a conviction that the Class A Japanese war criminals convicted by the Allies in the Tokyo war-crimes tribunals should not be considered criminals under Japanese law and hence their enshrinement in Yasukuni was acceptable. He also argued that there was no clear proof that Korean women had been subject to official coercion.
The rise in tensions between Japan and its two Northeast Asian neighbors rang alarm bells in Washington. American policy makers were happy to see the DPJ discard its Asianist dreams in favor of a more conventional Yoshida Doctrine realism. But the twinning of that realism with the darker overtones of conservative nationalism created the specter of unwanted and potentially destabilizing conflict.
American officials quickly expressed chagrin when Abe reiterated his long-held revisionist agenda to roll back the 1993 Kono statement of apology to comfort women and the statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the fiftieth anniversary of the war apologizing for Japan’s colonial rule and acknowledging Japan as the war’s “aggressor.” Obama administration officials also used the emergence of new governments in Seoul and Tokyo to push for repairing fences and resuming security-coordination talks.
Early evidence suggests that Abe and his colleagues got the message. Envoys were dispatched to China and South Korea, and the historical revisionism has been pushed to the background, at least until after this summer’s upper-house vote. But Abe signaled toughness toward Beijing by dispatching air and naval forces to respond to Chinese deployments in the East China Sea and visiting Southeast Asian nations eager to have Japanese backing in their territorial disputes with China. Still, the pragmatism that prevailed early in Abe’s first premiership is visible once again. The Japanese leader emphasizes the primacy of the security alliance, something he will no doubt display during a planned visit to Washington. He can’t afford signs of distance between Tokyo and Washington over crisis management in the region.
Another impetus for restraint by Abe may be the coming upper-house elections in July. The prime minister is firmly mindful of 2007, when the LDP lost control of parliament’s upper house after running on an unpopular platform of constitutional revision and educational reform designed to infuse patriotism. The DPJ, under Ozawa’s leadership, made huge inroads into the LDP’s rural base by promising to protect retirement pensions and preserve household income. That defeat led to Abe’s resignation after just a year in office and to the DPJ’s triumph two years later.
Abe, seemingly determined to avoid that mistake, has focused on the economy this time. He is eyeing quick returns from a large public-works stimulus program and an effort to drive down the value of the yen through monetary easing. The LDP knows that while it gained a clear majority in the lower house last December, this was attributable mainly to popular dissatisfaction with the DPJ and a splintered vote shared among an array of new parties.
Hopes for stable governance in Japan may rest on the ability of Abe and the LDP to concentrate on economics and downplay the nationalist agenda. But the cabinet reflects an uneasy balance between pro-Western liberals and more radical nationalists. In education policy, for example, the party’s election manifesto called for reform of the textbook-screening process to promote greater “pride in Japanese traditions and cultures,” language associated with right-wing critiques of textbooks’ antiwar themes. The manifesto advocated removal of the requirement that textbooks focus on Japan’s relations with its neighbors, which was imposed in 1982 after a controversial attempt to rewrite textbooks to remove references to Japan’s wartime “aggression.”
The manifesto was drafted at the direction of the new education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, who has declared that the years since World War II “have been a history of Japan’s destruction. Now is our only chance to remake the country.” That agenda, he explained, would begin with reducing the requirement for a two-thirds vote of parliament to put constitutional amendments up for a popular vote, opening the door to easier changes in the constitution.
EVEN IF he keeps his government’s focus on the economy, Abe’s policy prescriptions could pose problems. The LDP’s ranks are filled with opponents of open markets who favor a return to Japan’s old formula of export-led growth and protection of traditional industries. Many of those industries, such as agriculture, construction, medical associations, and the postal-savings and insurance lobbies, oppose the TPP trade agreement for fear that it will expose them to foreign competition. Some 160 LDP Diet members, more than half the total lower-house delegation, were elected with the endorsement of the agricultural cooperatives association on a platform of opposing the TPP. Support for the TPP in the LDP rests more on its anti-China intent and to appease Americans than on its implications for the economy. Even if Abe seeks to join the TPP after an upper-house victory, which seems possible, the government will be pressed to oppose measures that would truly push the Japanese economy in a more reformist, deregulated direction.
Further, a policy of driving down the value of the yen to help ailing Japanese automobile and electronic firms is likely to trigger competitive devaluations by South Korea and China. Increased competition with Korean firms, already moving to take advantage of Japanese woes in China, could push Korea closer to China.
In Washington, the focus of policy makers on narrow security matters often obscures these important economic realities. The Japanese decision to raise defense spending for the first time in a dozen years and to expand Japan’s limited role in assisting the defense forces of countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines is widely praised, for example. But given Japan’s own “fiscal cliff”—accumulated debt is estimated to reach 245 percent of GDP this year—it is unlikely to sustain significant increases in defense spending.
More seriously, if Japan slides into a deeper confrontation with China, the impact on Japan’s economy, and the global economy, could be disastrous. Few in Asia, even those sympathetic to Tokyo, are likely to follow Japan’s lead in confronting China.
Japan’s leadership in Asia does not rest on the dispatch of a few patrol vessels to the Philippines. But the country can offer a clear alternative to China’s self-serving mercantilism and authoritarian rule. Japanese firms should assert their role once again as innovators able to generate breakthrough technologies. That kind of Japan emerged out of the collapse of World War II. Such forces still exist within the country—a new Japan of younger entrepreneurs and innovative firms working in cutting-edge industries and service sectors—but they are unlikely to gain their rightful role in a Japan obsessed with the past.
The United States would be well served by a revitalized Japan, but not one that confuses the past with the future. There are clear limits to what Americans can do about the thorny issues of wartime history, especially given the U.S. role in that war. And China’s leaders certainly will continue to use historical issues cynically for their own political purposes, at home and abroad. But American policy makers need to strengthen the hand of Japan’s pro-Western forces in their contest with revisionist nationalists by making clear U.S. intolerance for a rollback of the postwar regime that America constructed.
Ultimately, much hinges on whether the promise of political reforms begun two decades ago will be realized. An innovative and growing Japan must rest on the foundation of a truly competitive political system in which the interests and voices of a globalized Japan, not just those seeking protection from competition, are represented. That requires a balance between the LDP and a realigned opposition incorporating the diminished DPJ and emergent forces that gained ground in this last election and tend to favor a more reformist domestic agenda.
The debate over Japan’s role in Asia—and the globe—will continue as long as the challenge from China remains. The Asianists are not wrong to want to move beyond the idea of Japan as an offshore balancer, distanced from the rest of Asia. But the pursuit of Gaullist pseudoindependence is a failed strategy. Japan’s best path is not to be the Britain or the France of Asia but rather, however ironic it might appear, the Germany of Asia. Like postwar Germany in Europe, Japan’s leadership in Asia rests on its economic prowess, its role as the leading center of high-tech manufacturing and its willingness to play a security role beyond its borders within the framework of collective security, no longer restrained by outdated ideas of pacifism. But Japan, again like Germany, can assume that mantle of leadership only if it abandons a morally repugnant defense of its wartime criminality and settles concerns about its wartime past in a dramatic and repentant fashion.
The United States should assist Japan, as it did postwar Germany, down this path. Abe could, if he chooses, be Japan’s Konrad Adenauer or even its Willy Brandt. Only time will tell whether he is willing, or able, to do so.
Daniel Sneider is the associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. A former foreign correspondent, he is the author of a study of Japan’s foreign policy under the Democratic Party of Japan and codirects a project on the formation of wartime memory in Asia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/JurriaanH . CC BY-SA 3.0.