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Japan's diplomatic adventures and historical revisionism


Many disturbing incidents are raging around the world -- turmoil in Ukraine, the wars in Gaza and Iraq, and tensions in Asia triggered by Chinese military expansion -- and they make it hard for us to have a clear view of the future. However, we should also pay attention to quiet changes that may have significant implications for the Asian region. One of these is Japan's diplomatic ventures and its soft challenge to U.S. policies.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is playing three wild cards in his diplomacy, none of which is favored by the United States, but he believes they may produce huge leverage for Japan and let the Japanese restore their pride in the country as a powerful nation.

The first diplomatic venture is with Russia. Even after there was little doubt that pro-Russian forces had shot down a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine, Abe said he would not halt dialogue with President Vladimir Putin as he sought drastic improvement in relations with Russia. Abe hopes that better bilateral relations will allow Japan to obtain massive imports of natural gas, achieve at long last a solution to the Northern Territories dispute, and result in containment of China. Abe has met Putin five times since he became prime minister in December 2012, and has said he has a good personal relationship with the Russian president.

The United States is watchful of Abe's attempts to move closer to Russia. When President Barack Obama met Abe last April, he complained about Japan's muted response to the annexation of Crimea. Japanese and Russian government officials had planned that a visit by Putin this fall to Japan would bring about a crucial breakthrough in bilateral relations. However, Washington now opposes Tokyo's invitation to Putin on the grounds that Group of Seven nations should stand together in protesting Putin's brazen behavior over Ukraine.

The second diplomatic venture is negotiations with North Korea. Japan has given great consideration to the U.S. policy of giving North Korea no opportunity to drive a wedge between Japan and other member states in the international coalition punishing North Korea. However, this spring Abe took bold steps to begin direct negotiations for the return of Japanese abductees still living in North Korea. On July 4, Pyongyang declared the launch of a new investigation into the whereabouts of the Japanese. In return Japan lifted some of its sanctions on the North.

The United States is especially concerned about Japan lifting some sanctions, with North Korea only establishing an investigative committee for the abductees, without actual repatriation of Japanese citizens. Furthermore, the Americans are afraid that Abe may visit Pyongyang and meet Kim Jong Un soon to secure the release of Japanese citizens, as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did in 2002. The Obama administration believes that a visit by Abe and Japanese economic assistance to Pyongyang may lead to the collapse of the anti-North Korea coalition.

The third diplomatic venture is Japan's challenge to the United States on history issues. Many Japanese conservative politicians including three Cabinet ministers of the Abe government worshipped at Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the memorial day marking the end of World War II in Asia, and Abe himself sent a ritual offering to the Shinto shrine. With the shrine honoring Japanese leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals in the war, the ministers' visit and Abe's offering provoked U.S., Chinese and South Korean discomfort.

The revisionists surrounding Abe have gained influence this summer. The liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun retracted the testimony of a Japanese man who reported having taken many Korean women as "comfort women" for soldiers under orders of the Imperial Japanese Army. The testimony published in the Asahi was strong evidence that the army and the government of Japan had forced the comfort women to serve in battlefields. The Asahi now says the testimony was false. The revisionists state that prostitutes were organized and run by private companies, and the Japanese government should not be subject to worldwide condemnation.

With this self-proclaimed victory, the Japanese revisionists are surely to undertake a new offensive to rewrite the historical facts of the war in Asia. The United States is pressuring Abe to push for robust military cooperation with South Korea and improve ties with China. But given this strong revisionist trend in Japan and other disputes, it is very difficult for Seoul and Beijing to step forward. Koreans and Chinese see conservative advisers around Abe as placing greater emphasis on rewriting the history of the war in Asia and restoring pride among Japanese than upgrading ties with neighboring countries.

Why has Japan suddenly adopted new policies at the risk of ties with the United States? The Japanese know that U.S. influence in Asia is waning, despite its rebalancing strategy, and Japan can no longer rely solely on the United States. Japan is now seeking what it can do as a nation to survive in this uncertain world. Russia is one logical candidate as a new strategic partner with a shared interest in containing China.

Regarding North Korea, the Japanese know that the preferred way for the United States to deal with North Korea is through the six-party framework, but negotiations have been suspended for many years, partly because of the weak leadership of the Obama administration. Even if the talks resume, there is no guarantee that North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals will be raised as a main topic. Japan can't wait forever without clear prospects for progress.

One twisted and unproductive outcome of Japan's search for ways to survive is the rise of historical revisionism. Unpopular though it may be in the rest of the world, many Japanese see it as meaningful to correct some of the views on history that they view as sometimes too harsh about their own country. They say speaking out loud about history and current affairs is the only way not to be ignored in world politics. Although it is unclear if the three ventures will promote the peace and prosperity the country has enjoyed for decades, we know Japan's historical revisionism fans a sense of uncertainty elsewhere.

(Hiroki Sugita is managing feature writer of Kyodo News.)