Japan Bond Requires Honesty About the Past

Abe in America.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Seven decades after the end of World War II, the U.S. and Japan have agreed to significantly expand military cooperation. It shows, as President Barack Obama said Tuesday, "that the past can be overcome, former adversaries can become the closest of allies and that nations can build a future together." For the enhanced partnership between these former foes to succeed, however, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to do more than please the Pentagon. 

The new guidelines, which were made possible by Abe’s recent reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution, would expand the range of situations under which the Japan Self-Defense Forces can support the U.S. military. Carrying them out will require some political will on Abe's part: More than two-thirds of Japanese still oppose taking on a greater military role. Yet the guidelines would allow Japanese forces to help the U.S. conduct surveillance and engage in missile defense, provide logistical aid during conflicts far from Japan, and cooperate militarily in space and cyberspace. 

The arrangement would benefit the U.S. at least as much as it does Japan. While Abe is hoping that stronger military ties would keep China at bay, a more proactive Japanese military would also reduce the burden -- not least the financial cost -- of maintaining America’s strategic presence in Asia. That would bolster the U.S. security shield and help smaller countries resist Chinese bullying in the South China Sea. (Japan might get more involved in monitoring shipping lanes in the contested area.) The guidelines would also facilitate greater security cooperation with India, Australia and other like-minded nations, thus strengthening the order the U.S. has upheld in the region since the war. 

Unfortunately, past experience suggests that Abe seems to believe that pledging to support the U.S. gives him carte blanche to pursue other, less commendable elements of his nationalist agenda. In December 2013, after he brokered a deal to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa, he promptly defied a direct request from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden not to visit Yasukuni, the shrine that contains the remains of war dead including some who were convicted of war crimes. And in recent months, even as Abe has forged ahead with negotiations over the guidelines, he’s revived controversies over how Japanese textbooks address the country’s war record and, in particular, its employment of “comfort women” as sex slaves. This month, he sent a ritual offering to Yasukuni during its spring festival and told an interviewer he sees no need to repeat the wording of past official apologies when he commemorates the anniversary of the war's end in August. 

This intransigence threatens to undermine what should be the chief goal of the U.S.-Japan partnership -- to stabilize the wider region. Tensions between Japan and China have relaxed somewhat: Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met briefly in Indonesia last week, and trade relations are healthy enough that Toyota may open new factories on the mainland. Still, Abe’s refusal to distance himself from his followers’ more retrograde positions empowers Chinese hard-liners. Worse, it irks fellow U.S. ally South Korea, which needs to expand defense cooperation with both Japan and the U.S. to combat the growing threat from North Korea. Abe’s coyness about the war limits President Park Geun Hye’s room to reach out even if she wanted to do so. 

As Pope Francis recently said of Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, "Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it." 

Nor is Abe doing himself any favors at home. In December's elections, voters gave him a mandate to fix the economy, not to revise the constitution; he still needs to build consensus behind security legislation that would underpin the military’s new role. The U.S. knows Abe’s support alone guarantees little: After his supposed breakthrough in Okinawa, voters elected a new governor who opposes plans to reclaim land offshore for the Marine base. 

Abe has every right to celebrate Japan’s peaceful postwar record. But when he addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he should also embrace past Japanese apologies and commit to facing up to the country’s war record in August. Only by clearing away any ambiguity about the past can he expect the rest of the world to share his hopes for the future.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.