Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Give Japan's Abe Junior a Chance

Japan’s new prime minister is planning his first foray into international diplomacy with a trip to Beijing and Seoul, presumably to mend fences with the Asian neighbors that have excoriated his predecessor for making provocative visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine. Abe comes into office with a reputation as a nationalist and hawk on defense, who some pundits believe will ultimately irritate, not improve, relations with South Korea and China.

Can Abe make friends in Asia without violating the sensitivities that endure among the victims of Japanese aggression in World War II?

A closer examination of Abe’s background reveals a much more complicated and nuanced picture of the man. Abe, 52, is the youngest prime minister in Japan’s nine decades of parliamentary government. As a ranking member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, he is by definition a conservative in the business boosting, right-wing and pro-military tradition that defines the party that has led the country for most of the post-World War II era.

It’s important to note, however, that Abe belongs to a new generation of Japanese leaders and he’s part of a new brand of nationalism that has taken hold in Japan in recent years. He does not hail from the rabid emperor-worshipping ultra-nationalism championed famously by the popular novelist Yukio Mishima in the 1960’s, when he committed ritual harakiri. Or more recently advocated by Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara and other veteran LDP party hacks.

Like his father, the late LDP general secretary Shintaro Abe, who was a well respected diplomat in his tenure as foreign minister, the youngish prime minister is associated with the internationalist wing of the LDP - not the hard-core gang of nationalists. He’s an English speaker, a rare trait among Japanese politicians, who studied political science at the University of Southern California.

He may share ambitions with other conservatives to revise Article 9 of the American-drafted Peace Constitution, which constrains Japan’s military to self defense and makes it difficult for Japanese troops from engaging meaningfully in international peace keeping missions. But his motives do not appear to be driven by a desire to return Japan to its pre-war glory days, with the power-projecting force that Korea and China fear. My view is that Abe and many of his political allies are riding a wave in the Japanese public that seeks greater national pride, not a back flip to Asian hegemony. The kind of nationalist goals he aims at, such as getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, are not unreasonable in light of Japan’s Great Power economic status as the world’s second richest nation.

If Abe wants to keep his job long enough to accomplish his political agenda for domestic reform and international prestige, however, he must appease the heavy duty nationalists among the old men in the LDP, who still wield considerable political influence in the Japanese tradition of opaque Machiavellian manipulation. So his response to the question of whether he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Junichi Koizumi, by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine –which symbolically worships convicted war criminals as well as the multitude of Japan’s war dead – is intentionally vague. This allows his administration to get off the ground without being undermined by detractors inside and outside Japan.

Only time will tell whether Abe can balance the trust of his party members and the Japanese public with the good will he apparently wants to build in the region. With North Korea threatening to test its first nuclear bomb and ongoing territorial disputes with China in potentially oil-rich offshore islands, the stakes are high.


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