Embracing another Abe
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A Japanese weekly magazine recently wrote that Korea may be the country that welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s resignation the most. It seems to have seen through the Korean people’s real feelings, which can’t be openly expressed when the leader of a neighboring country faces personal misfortune.
Separately from the evaluations of Japanese people and the international community, the Korean people remember Abe as the person responsible for the worst-ever Korea-Japan relations. Abe’s provocative actions and policies based on revisionism and nationalism made the Korean people uncomfortable. When he refused to have a bilateral summit with President Moon Jae-in in a G20 summit that he hosted, the Korean people were enraged.
A boycott of Japanese products started in Korea last year after Tokyo strengthened export control measures. At the time, the campaign’s initial slogan was “No Japan” but it was later changed to “No Abe.” Now that Abe will resign, Koreans seem to have some expectations that bilateral relations will improve. The message President Moon Jae-in announced shortly after Abe announced he would resign — despite his aides’ opposition — also reflected such expectations. Will it actually happen?
We must cool-headedly accept that the general trend in Japanese society has changed. In the past, Japan’s politics could be explained with the principle of a pendulum. Japanese voters supported the conservatives, or right-wing politicians, once and then moved to the liberals, or left-wing politicians, in the next election as a pendulum oscillates. Even in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the factions of the conservatives and the moderates struck a balance.
However, the pendulum’s movement became nearly meaningless after the axis of the pendulum moved to the far right over the past 20 years. As the LDP is dominated by the Seiwakai — the party’s most hawkish faction — there is almost no difference between factions. Politicians with humble perceptions of history — and those who oppose a constitutional amendment to change Japan to a “normal country” — have no place in the LDP. Opposition parties became even more powerless than before.
After Abe resigns, Japan will have a second — and third — Abe. That’s the reality of Japanese politics and society. Whether we want to fight Japan till the end or seek reconciliation through dialogue, we must accurately understand what’s going on in Japan.
It is a serious problem that politicians who were friendly to Korea almost disappeared in Japan. Even if there are some, they cannot make their voices heard. We must stop blaming Japan and ponder whether we have any responsibility for this situation. Lately, more and more opinion leaders and politicians in Japan who have long maintained a neutral stance toward Korea are leaning toward anti-Korea sentiments.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a Japanese politician most likely to succeed Abe, is one of them. According to a source I met in Tokyo last year, Suga had expressed his disappointment and anger toward the Moon administration for having scrapped the bilateral agreement to settle the comfort women issue. Suga’s close relationship with Lee Byung-ki, former chief of staff of President Park Geun-hye, is largely credited for the agreement. Suga reportedly expressed strong disappointment at the revocation by Moon of the deal he cut with Lee.
The governments of Korea and Japan are mired in a swamp of distrust. Leaders of the two countries must resolve their dispute. They should show a willingness to change first, instead of waiting for the other side to change. Even if Japan has another leader like Abe, we need to embrace him.
Amid the strong anti-Japan sentiments in 1998, President Kim Dae-jung adopted the Korea-Japan Joint Declaration: a new partnership to overcome the two countries’ bitter history and promote future-oriented relations. Kim lifted the longtime ban on Japanese pop culture.
His courage brought about remarkable changes. The launch of a new Japanese administration can be an opportunity for Moon to demonstrate his own courage and wisdom.