TOKYO – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says his top priority when he meets with President Obama in Washington on Friday will be repairing the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Obama’s priority ought to be making sure that Abe’s right-wing fantasies don’t wreck it entirely.
On the surface, the meetings should go well. Abe and Obama see eye-to-eye on most defense and foreign policy issues. Abe supports the U.S. “re-balance” to Asia, opposes China over its aggressive territorial demands, and mirrors Obama’s strong stand against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests.
Abe is also heeding U.S. requests to boost Japan’s defenses. He increased defense spending for the first time in 10 years (minimally, to be sure, but an increase nonetheless). He is working hard to ease restrictions on so-called ‘collective defense’ – an odd interpretation of Japan’s Constitution that prevents the military from coming to the aid allies, including alliance partner America. And Abe plans to seek formal approval from Okinawa officials next month to begin the long-delayed process of relocating an important Marine air base there.
Abe should know the issues, since he served as prime minister once before. He took office in 2006 with a plan to expand Japan’s defense capabilities. But he resigned less than a year later, a victim of poor health, political scandals and a conservative agenda that was seen as out of touch with many voters.
He’s made a better start this time.
He quickly dropped the campaign rhetoric that earned support from the conservative wing of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and focused instead on the economy. Since he took office in December, the stock market has climbed to a five-year high, the over-valued yen has fallen 20 percent and his public approval rating has climbed to 71 percent.
Still, it’s hard not to sense an underlying unease with Abe. Part of it may be his lifelong connection with conservative elements; he is, after all, the grandson of a wartime industry minister who was arrested on suspicion of war crimes (Nobusuke Kishi, who was never charged and later became prime minister).
But much of it may have to do with Abe’s goal of revising the Constitution, a pacifist document initially drafted by American Occupation forces.
Abe wants to change key provisions of the Constitution that, according to critics, would weaken individual rights and give greater authority to police and government agencies. It would also require, by law, public “respect” for Japan’s Rising Sun flag and the Kimigayo national anthem – symbols for many people at home and abroad of Japan’s dark militarist past.
“These are radical changes and would make Japan into a very different kind of country and society,” says Lawrence Repeta, a law professor and constitutional expert at Meiji University in Tokyo. “America has a stake in seeing that Japan continues to play a role in the world as a free society. Obama has every right to take this up with Abe, and he should.”
Polls show the Constitution retains wide support. To achieve the changes, Abe is proposing some parliamentary sleight-of-hand: He first plans to alter the amendment process, requiring a simple majority of Diet members rather than two-thirds vote. A national referendum would follow.
Abe has needlessly inflamed relations with South Korea, a key U.S. ally. Abe has indicated he wants to revise the so-called “Kono Statement,” in which Japan apologized and accepted responsibility for recruiting comfort women — sex slaves, to some. This is a highly emotional issue in South Korea and any revision would certainly bring a strong reaction.
What’s more, Abe this week was reportedly planning to send a representative to celebrations marking Japan’s claim to Dokdo Island, a rocky outcropping in the Sea of Japan that is controlled by South Korea. If there is an issue guaranteed to infuriate South Koreans more than the comfort women issue, Dokdo/Takeshima is it.
Disagreement on those two issues last summer led South Korea to cancel the signing of defense agreements with Japan pertaining to intelligence-sharing and logistics — agreements that U.S. officials dearly wanted them to sign.
“I would hope that Obama, or somebody, tells Abe, ‘Now more than ever, don’t revise the Kono Statement or do something crazy on Takeshima.’ Because a key part of Obama’s vision for Asia is that we want South Korea and Japan on the same page to counter China and North Korea,” says Sean King, an East Asia specialist with the Park Strategies consulting firm.
It may be that Abe’s doesn’t need the advice and that his right-wing dalliances are just a nod to the LDP’s conservative wing. Changing the Constitution has been a stated goal of the LDP since the 1950s, but is yet to happen. Neither Abe’s foreign or defense ministers — two of his most important appointments and indication of Abe priorities — have particularly conservative credentials and neither has shown a hint of nationalist tendencies, so far.
We may discover more about Abe in July, when upper house elections are held. If Abe’s LDP wins a majority there, he’ll have greater opportunity to pursue his own course. And perhaps arrange another conversation with Obama.