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Team Abe Alienates Team Obama

SNA (Tokyo) — Since we are based in Tokyo and not in Washington DC, we may not be the best source available for understanding US government policy, even its policy toward Japan and Asia. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to notice that the Obama administration is taking an unexpectedly cool posture toward Shinzo Abe and his band, and that this is having a major political effect here as well. It is also obvious that the Obama policy toward Japan is radically different than what US policy was a decade ago under George W. Bush.

Without presenting every detail, the broad factors that seem to be operating here include the points that the War on Terrorism and security cooperation is no longer regarded as the end-all and be-all of what Washington wants from Tokyo; that the traditional “Japan handlers” no longer have critical influence in Obama’s second term; and, as part of this reality, that East Asia is no longer viewed in black-and-white terms of good guys and bad guys, but rather as a complex political organism with many shades of grey.

Team Abe is clearly perplexed, because the way the US-Japan Alliance is operating right now is not the way they were brought up to understand it. Prime Minister Abe has been eager from the beginning of his new government to signal how he had restored trust in the alliance and how Japan’s natural leaders are back in charge. They have believed that by dangling more active military cooperation with US forces (a longtime objective of US policy), that Washington would be flexible and accommodating on most other issues. This is the way it used to work in the Bush era, but now the US government seems to be playing according to a different set of rules which the Japanese conservatives don’t yet understand.

No doubt that if Richard Armitage or Michael Green or Kurt Campbell or Joseph Nye were still running Japan policy in Washington, then the Abe administration would be greeted much differently than it is being greeted now. But the whole clique of Japan handlers, both its Republican and Democrat wings, are now out of major office and confined to writing articles and reports that the real Obama policymakers probably aren’t even reading.

Although in theory it sounds like a good thing to have Japan experts handling US policy toward Japan, in practice we believe it is probably quite beneficial that these guys are out of power. In their efforts to create a Japan more submissive to US global military policies, it is these men who, somewhat inadvertently, protected and cultivated the rightwing forces in Japan and hindered the development of a healthier and more participatory democracy in this nation.

How their policies play out to the detriment of popular sovereignty can be perceived with particular clarity in Okinawa these days, but at a more subtle level they operate nationwide, and indeed they have done so since 1947 and the “reverse course” policy of the US military occupation.

Be that as it may, the current reality is that Obama administration has little sympathy for the rightwing ideology of Shinzo Abe and his friends, despite the fact that this ideology has risen to the top in large part as a by-product of earlier generations of US policy toward Japan. Since there are no real Japan experts in key positions in the Obama administration, they probably don’t even know that history and are only judging the situation by what they see today.

And what do they see today? They see Japanese leaders who insist on visiting shrines that honor war criminals. They see a conservative political party in charge that is totally out of touch on politically-potent gender issues, including wartime sex slavery matters. They see a Japanese leadership whose English sounds rather comical when they have the desire and the ability to communicate in the global language at all.

The contrast with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is sharp indeed. Although she also leads a conservative government, as a female leader of an East Asian nation, she scores points immediately on gender issues just by being who she is; and when her government tells US officials that Tokyo needs to take the “comfort women” issue more seriously for the region to move forward and to build positive relations, she commands credibility.

One can only imagine how secretly jealous Japanese conservatives must have been as the new Korean president addressed a Joint Session of the US Congress — and speaking in reasonably good English.

It was even more embarrassing for the Abe administration when President Obama, in his personal talks with President Park, commented on the importance of US-Japan-Korea trilateral cooperation in facing North Korea. Park reportedly responded to the US president by noting, “Japan must have the proper recognition of history in order to have peace in Northeast Asia.”

This leaves no doubt that even President Obama himself is aware that the rightwing culture of the Abe administration is creating obstacles for US policy in this region.

Even former Bush administration officials are now warning Tokyo that it had better soft-pedal its historical revisionism if it wants to keep US-Japan relations on an even keel during Obama’s second term.

So is Team Abe getting the message? Yes and no.

On the one hand there is a clear effort on the part of the prime minister and the chief cabinet secretary to cool down the history issues. They do recognize that Washington is unhappy with them. This was seen most notably in the statements last week that the current government accepts the 1993 Kono Statement expressing remorse for the wartime “comfort women” system.

But, on the other hand, every serious observer also understands that key members of this government really, deeply believe in their rightwing ideology, and that they simply won’t be able to help themselves from time to time in expressing their real views in public.

The latest example is provided by LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi, who just told an NHK interviewer, referring to the 1995 Murayama Statement expressing remorse for the Pacific War: “There is no doubt that Japan hurt the ethnic pride of people in colonized countries and caused them tremendous suffering, but the Murayama Statement mentions ‘a mistaken national policy.’ Then, would it have been best for Japan not to fight at all and to take the path of becoming a colony amid embargoes? I think no politician in today’s Japan can tell us with confidence what was right in the international situation at that time.”

Yes, these people are going to have extreme difficulty pretending to be something they are not – even for the benefit of their US allies.