Abe could learn from Nakasone
But Japan might not have expected the rare expression of “disappointment” from its closest ally, the United States, with which it has been working hard toward the common goal of reining in China’s rising power. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a statement from the U.S. State Department, expressing concern that Abe’s actions may “exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
Earlier this month, Tokyo sent Senior Vice Foreign Minister Nobuo Kishi, also Abe’s younger brother, to Washington to explain that Abe’s visit was intended to pay respects to the war dead and not intended to hurt the feelings of neighboring countries.
U.S. government officials and politicians, however, responded coldly. Public opinion at home also turned unfavorably toward the prime minister as he became more audacious in his nationalistic and historically revisionist views on past military aggressions. Tokyo’s leadership is on the brink of losing its strongest power base - the United States and the Japanese people.
Abe became the first Japanese leader to have visited the controversial shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals, since his political mentor Junichiro Koizumi. Since taking office in 2001, Koizumi visited the sanctuary six times, serving five years and five months. Then, Washington sided with Tokyo, claiming the affair was up to the Japanese leader and other politicians.
U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who had made visits to Japan, China and South Korea early in December, reportedly spent nearly an hour trying to talk Abe out of making the visit, saying the move could risk any room for improving ties with Korea and China.
Washington may have felt offended not only because Abe rejected the vice president’s plea - regardless of it being a private idea - but also because Tokyo outright undermined President Barack Obama’s campaign of pivoting toward Asia by maintaining influence in regional stability based on a three-way alliance with Japan and South Korea. The U.S. media began to paint Abe as an extreme nationalist and a troublemaker in Northeast Asia, making Tokyo lose points against China in the regional rivalry.
In order for Tokyo to reverse negative opinion, it should learn from another conservative and nationalistic leader, Yasuhiro Nakasone. When he came into office in 1982, Japan’s ties with neighboring countries were also at their worst. He aggravated them by making a visit to the religious shrine for the first time as the sitting prime minister. Yet, during his five-year term, Japan’s relationship with South Korea, China and the United States was one of the best. He became buddies with then-President Ronald Reagan (they called each other by their first names).
The key was in strategic flexibility, harmonizing national and international interests. Although he helped revitalize nationalism at home, Nakasone shrewdly read global trends and practically sought nationalist interests while respecting those of other countries. Though a young politician, he championed rewriting the Constitution, scaling-down U.S. forces in Japan and military sovereignty. He also campaigned for scrapping of the so-called Yoshida Doctrine, which called for a “small Japan,” with primary reliance on U.S. military protection.
However, after he became the head of the defense agency in 1970, his beliefs on the Japan-U.S. relationship changed. Once he ascended to the office of prime minister, he was a different man, and wrote in his diary that Japan had enjoyed a glorious era during the three decades after the war through nonmilitarism and universality.
Nakasone also led a public education campaign to foster a new generation based on universal and international visions, democracy and individuality. He hired a former teachers’ union leader as a member of the education review committee, and in 1986 sacked Education Minister Masayuki Fujio for his controversial comment minimizing past aggressions by claiming Korea’s colonization had been mutually agreed.
By the time he stepped into office in 1982, Japan had been embroiled in diplomatic spats over history textbooks with China and South Korea. He sent a special envoy to negotiate with a key member of the ruling party in Korea. In the following year, Nakasone became the first Japanese leader to visit South Korea and agreed with President Chun Doo Hwan to give a $4 billion aid package.
When Chun visited Tokyo in 1984, Nakasone persuaded the Japanese emperor to first acknowledge Japan’s colonization of Korea. He also became the first in the Japanese government to acknowledge Japan’s aggression in the Sino-Japanese War. He included a clause in the law stipulating the government’s duty to teach the younger generations about past aggressions.
The Abe government should take note of Nakasone’s trajectory, as it seeks the same goal of reviving national pride and building a strong Japan while avoiding criticism for its nationalistic attitude.
When his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine angered neighbors in 1985, he stopped the ritual. He confessed that he decided to bend his principles when his close Chinese ally, Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the Communist Party, was purged for his progressive reforms. In 2005, he advised Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to stop visiting the controversial shrine.
We, too, should learn to contain our emotions especially during tumultuous times. Knee-jerk condemnation won’t solve any problems or protect our national interests. We need to understand Japan’s anxiety about losing its rank and voice over a variety of issues with China. The tense rivalry between the two countries could turn catastrophic even from a small provocation. South Korea is the only country that could mediate between the two, and the timing could not be better. The Park Geun-hye government should set up diplomatic initiatives to shake the two countries out of their nationalist fervors and bring them back into international context.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 19, Page 31
*The author is the senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Ha-kyung