The Pains and Gains of a Strong Japan

Sept 2, 2015 will mark 70 years since V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day) and, in effect, the end of the Second World War. In 1960, the United States and Japanese governments would sign a security treaty building upon previous arrangements permitting the stationing of American troops on Japanese soil and the restriction of Japanese military forces for defensive purposes only.

For decades, that status quo held. However, with China’s rise and the continuing threat of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Japan has been forced to recalibrate its national security policy. It was in 2013 when Japan expressed its intent to modify its pacifist, defense policy in light of regional challenges. It was a year later when the ban on collective self-defense was removed, despite public opposition. In short, the change would allow Japan to come to the aid of its allies.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is now visiting the US this week with stops in Boston, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The significance of Abe's trip depends on what it means about Japan’s continuing strategy and the country’s wider interests. Certainly, he intends to let America know he is there.

Abe was scheduled to leave for Washington, DC, on Monday night, where he and President Obama will discuss matters of shared importance and enjoy a state dinner. Undoubtedly Abe will have on his mind a nuclear North Korea and an increasingly assertive China. For a prime minister who is unafraid to tackle to national security issues head on, the change to his country’s defense policy is only the beginning.

With the unveiling of new guidelines for defense cooperation between the US and Japan on Monday, which are expected to be signed upon Abe’s arrival in Washington, the prime minister continues to march his country away from its postwar pacifist identity to one that is ready to assume responsibility for its security.

While Japan’s new direction might not be one that is supported by many of its citizens, it is one that the US is happy to assist. With the US pivot to Asia-Pacific ongoing, and facing deep cuts in defense spending, the US needs a strong and capable partner in the region more than ever.

At least under the leadership of Abe, US and Japanese security concerns have appeared to be in synch. Perhaps no other Asian-Pacific leader is likely to see eye-to-eye with Obama’s pivot than the Japanese prime minister.

It would be all too easy to try and push for Japan to assume a regional leadership role to facilitate the US’s rebalancing strategy, and the establishment of a new Asia-Pacific security framework. However, should such a role be entrusted to Japan, the US should not be surprised if it is met with opposition.

Japan’s inescapable past

As Abe delivered his remarks at Harvard, protesters gathered quietly outside called for him to apologize for Japanese war crimes during WWII. While the audience listened to the prime minister as he talked about the status of women in his country, the protesters outside called for him to address Japan’s atrocities against women during the war.

Japan’s wartime activities have not been forgotten by countries in the region, particularly by China and South Korea. Abe and previous Japanese leaders have been accused of denying and/or evading the subject of their country’s role during the war, in particular the topic of “comfort women.” Made worse, Japanese leaders paying their respect for the war dead, which includes convicted war criminals, at the Yasukuni Shrine, only continues to give the appearance of Japanese indifference to historical transgressions.

Moreover, it is unlikely that Abe will change course and differ from his predecessors. Although Abe expressed remorse for his country’s wartime actions at a summit in Indonesia last week, he stopped short of offering a full apology.

The prime minister and his government have also come under fire for trying to revise passages in its textbooks about “comfort women” in Japanese military brothels during the war—a move that was rejected by the textbook publisher, US-based McGraw-Hill Education. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Abe defined the change in the way history was taught in Japan as a means to improve morale and self-confidence in children.

Japan’s inescapable past is a thorn in the side of Abe and successive prime ministers, but it could also prove to be a serious impediment to US policy in the Asia-Pacific region. With its military constrained by budget cuts, the US must rely on regional partners to advance its foreign policy. Both Japan and South Korea are equal to the task, if necessary; but with the two US-allies at odds with one another over the interpretation of the former’s wartime actions, true cooperation will be difficult to achieve.

Not unlike Japan, the US shares similar concerns regarding a nuclear North Korea. And although a rising China is an opportunity for economic benefit, the Asian giant also poses challenges. A cooperative security framework to dealing with regional issues would allow the US and Japan to address the threat posed by North Korea, and the numerous maritime and territorial disputes that plague region, especially the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands claimed by Japan and China.

Yet, a US–Japan-led security framework for Asia-Pacific will remain hindered as long as Japan continues to avoid assuming responsibility for its WWII actions. For the US, a strong Japan is a much welcomed partner, but it will also serve as a reminder of the latter’s past militarism. If Japan is expected to assist in the US in Asia-Pacific, Japan must first make peace with its history.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa, Canada, focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.