Past is Present for Japan

In the nearly one year that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in power, he has visited some 23 countries, far more than any other Japanese premier in his first year in office. He has visited all 10 Asean countries, most recently Laos, several Middle East countries (twice to Turkey), and even Mongolia.

There are two important countries conspicuously absent from this list – China and South Korea. Abe has not met with leaders of either country, even though they are, like Abe, new to their positions and thus one might think important to get to know. However there is no prospect of any “summit” with either China’s Xi Jinping or Korea’s Park Geun-hye any time soon.

If anything, relations among the three Northeast Asian countries are getting worse. Hardly a day passes without some new irritant. The United States, which desires peace and cooperation with these countries, two of which are formal allies and the other an important friend, is growing increasingly concerned. It may produce challenges for the new American ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

Court Rulings Relations between Japan and Korea are being seriously undercut by a succession of South Korean high court rulings for actions stemming from the war, which ended a full 68 years ago. This year the high court has ruled several times for plaintiffs seeking compensation for being forced to labor for Japan’s war effort. They implicate some Japanese companies, such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, that are international household words.

South Korean leaders who might prefer to look beyond history for future relations have found themselves constrained by court rulings. In 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government not to address the issue of Korean (and other Asian) women conscripted to serve in army brothels, thus elevating the “comfort women” issue to the fore.

Tokyo maintains that these matters were addressed in the 1965 treaty normalizing relations between Japan and South Korea. (Washington takes the same position) South Korea’s dictator Park Chung-hee was happy to keep things that way and take Japan’s reparation payments to help to jump-start the economy. His daughter, the current president, has distanced herself from her late father’s position.

Indeed, President Park seems to be doubling down on World War II issues, claiming that any summit with Abe would be useless given Japan’s refusal to acknowledge what she calls past wrongdoings. “If Japan continues to stick to the same historical perceptions and repeat its past comments, then what purpose would a summit serve? Perhaps it would be better not to have one.”

History History continues to intrude on efforts to project a more future-oriented relationship. The latest spat centers around Korean plans to build a statue, in conjunction with China, to honor Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean patriot who in 1909 assassinated the Japanese resident–general in Korea, Ito Hirobumi, and several other prominent Japanese at a railroad station in Harbin, China.

South Korea considers Ahn to be a national hero, and there are other monuments and memorials to his memory in Seoul and Harbin (China also considers Ahn an anti-Japanese hero). So it would seem fairly harmless gesture on South Korea’s part to build another statue to him. Nevertheless, Tokyo blasted Seoul for the move.

“This is not good for Japan-South Korea relations,” thundered the government’s chief spokesman, Yoshihide Suga. He said Ahn was “a criminal,” using words that are certain to inflame feelings across the Sea of Japan (or, East Sea as the Koreans say) Ironically, Ahn admired Japan’s 19th Century Meiji Restoration and modernization, of which Hirobumi was a major architect.

The Rise of Shinzo Abe It is hardly news that both Beijing and Seoul have deep misgivings about Japan’s current prime minister and his plans for Japan. Abe’s efforts to appease public opinion in China and Korea, such as declining to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in an official capacity always seem to be undercut by other actions. (The Chinese and Koreans object to the visit because the Yasukuni enshrines the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals.)

Though he has – so far – avoided the shrine, many of his ministers, including deputy premier Taro Aso have made the pilgrimage, and Abe has sent the shrine personal offerings on religious days. He has also been ambiguous on the several official apologies that Japan has made over the years. He has not repudiated any of the apologies Japan has issued, but he hasn’t reaffirmed them either. Abe’s reputed plans to tinker with Japan’s US-written constitution, especially changing or eliminating the famous war-renouncing Article 9, raise fears in Seoul and Beijing that he wants to remilitarize Japan. Abe has for now shelved plans to change the constitution, but is moving on several other fronts to take the leash off of Japan’s military.

Territorial Issues Territorial disputes over isolated rocks in the Sea of Japan and East China Sea continue to roil relations. The reason again, history. Japan asserted sovereignty over these rocks in in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Tokyo was beginning its imperial lunge into Korea and China, so they are inevitably tied up with resentments lingering from those actions.

The biggest bone of contention with China is, of course, is over the Senkaku Islands ( Diaoyu Islands in Chinese). The dispute has for the time being settled down into a daily ritual in which Chinese coast guard or fishery protection vessels and occasional aircraft intrude into what Tokyo considers its territorial waters or air space, and Japanese Coast Guard or air force jets scramble to order them away.

Japan has been gradually shifting its self-defense forces from defending Hokkaido from a Soviet attack to defending the southern string of islands from any Chinese misadventure. Beijing recently protested Japan’s plan to temporarily move anti-ship missiles, as part of an exercise, to Miyako island, which stands adjacent to the channel in which Chinese warships occasionally pass for high seas exercises.

It is questionable whether the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans can ever move beyond the past. Chinese and Koreans question why Japan cannot face up to its actions in the war. The younger generation of Japanese, who have zero interest in reviving their country’s prewar system, wonder why each generation must apologize again and again for the war.