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Tokyo’s historical revisionism poses dilemma for U.S.

Experts call on Seoul to take strategic approach to Japan issues

Jan. 13, 2014 - 20:12 By Korea Herald
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is treading an increasingly treacherous diplomatic path with his apparently revisionist view of the country’s imperial-era aggression, deepening regional historical animosity.

From his remarks on the “ill-defined” definition of an invasion to his recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, the hawkish leader’s rhetoric and action have caused deep concerns for South Korea and China, two major victims of Japan’s past militarism.

Abe’s contentious historical opinions also pose a strategic dilemma to the U.S. as they are hindering Washington’s initiatives to deepen security cooperation with regional allies and promote stable relations with Beijing.

The U.S. and Japan share the same goals of keeping an increasingly assertive China in check and deterring an unpredictable North Korea. But Tokyo’s failure to face up to its history could impede the efforts toward those goals, analysts warned. 

“Even if there were no historical conflicts at all, Japan’s pursuit of a greater security role would aggravate security jitters among its neighbors. But Abe’s nationalist moves further complicate efforts for regional cooperation and pose hurdles to the U.S. policy toward Asia,” said Kim Tae-hyung, security expert at Soongsil University.

“Taking advantage of the chasm in Korea-Japan ties, China would strive to strengthen its ties with Korea and make it difficult for Washington to increase the triangular security cooperation with its core Asian allies of Korea and Japan.”

Abe’s surprise visit last month to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japanese war dead, including Class-A criminals of World War II, has drawn criticism from the U.S. as well as South Korea and China.

Washington expressed “disappointment” and warned against moves that would further exacerbate regional tensions.

In a thinly-veiled message to Tokyo, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery last October instead of paying respects at the Yasukuni Shrine only 1 km away from the cemetery.

Despite international criticism, Abe indicated his intention to continuously visit the Tokyo shrine. “I will continue to harbor the thought that as a leader of Japan, I will pay respects to the spirits of (Japanese) war dead,” he said last Thursday.

Tokyo’s failure to fully atone for the country’s past aggression angers not only South Koreans and Chinese, but also Americans with bitter memories of Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, in which more than 2,400 Americans were killed.

Historical revisionists in Japan argue their country staged the war to fend off Western powers’ invasions of East Asia and should be credited with the endeavors to “liberate” the region. They also say their wartime wrongdoings are exaggerated or falsified.

“Japan’s historical revisionism also dangerously and negatively affects the U.S. The U.S. was also victim to Japanese imperialistic aggression and militarism. Of course, the Japanese people suffered at the hands of U.S. military action (nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki),” said Balbina Hwang, former State Department adviser and politics professor at Georgetown University.

“This is the why there needs to be an honest accounting of history by all sides. This is the precise reason why Yasukuni should also be insulting to the U.S. and not just China and Korea.”

Controversy over Tokyo’s whitewashing of its brutal past is likely to persist as the Abe administration, which will likely remain in power until the next parliamentary elections in 2016, seeks to inculcate patriotism into young generations and curtail what it calls “self-torturing” historical views in school textbooks.

“The U.S. may feel perplexed as it has cooperated with Japan so far and made it a core partner in forging and maintaining the postwar world order on the premise that Japan, bound by its pacifist constitution, would promote peace and stability,” said Lee Sang-hyun, a senior research fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute. “Washington would not feel comfortable with Tokyo’s historically retrogressive attitude.”

After World War II, the U.S. envisioned a pacifist, demilitarized Japan. But it retracted the plan and made the island nation a staging area for the U.S. military to fend off communist expansion.

Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Washington saw Japan’s value as a postwar strategic partner increasing ― a reason why the process of holding Japan thoroughly responsible for its war aggression foundered.

Though the foreign policy challenge stemming from Tokyo’s friction with its neighbors appears to become more intractable, Washington is in no position to be stuck in long-festering historical issues due to Japan’s role for the regional balance of power challenged by China.

“In fact, Washington has been pushing Japan to improve its military forces and act more assertively, because the U.S. is increasingly worried about growing Chinese power, and wants Japan to play a key role in checking China if it adopts an overly ambitious foreign policy,” said John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago in a 2012 interview with The Korea Herald.

Japan, with its technological, economic might, is America’s most trusted security ally in the region due to their shared sense of vulnerability that has increased in recent years thanks to China’s growing military and economic muscles.

Japan provides land for U.S. bases in geostrategically vital locations including Okinawa, huge financial support for the upkeep of nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in the country, and critical assistance for missile defense against potential adversaries such as China.

Japan’s greater security role in the region is particularly crucial for the U.S. when it struggles to cope with a plethora of domestic and external challenges including its financial woes.

This is part of the reason the U.S. has hoped to see Japan become a normal state with a stronger military, which can participate in collective self-defense, the use of force to aid an ally that is being attacked, experts say.

U.S.-Japan security cooperation is expected to further deepen as Japan finally approved the relocation of a U.S. marine base in Okinawa on Dec. 27 ― a thorny issue that has long hampered America’s plan for the overall troop realignment in Japan.

The allies’ plan to revise their defense cooperation guidelines this year is likely to further cement their strategic partnership to maintain what they call the rule-based regional order that an ascendant China is feared to revise.

Amid deepening bilateral military cooperation, Washington has backed Tokyo’s economic revitalization packages, known as “Abenomics,” even though it led to the weak yen. An economically stronger Japan could help rein in China’s growing assertiveness, analysts pointed out.

The U.S. turning a blind eye to Japan’s moves to depreciate the value of yen is in stark contrast to its persistent criticism against what it calls Beijing’s undervaluation of its currency yuan.

For Seoul, Japan’s lack of remorse for its past atrocities including sexual enslavement of Korean women is a major hurdle to the establishment of a future-oriented, practical relationship with Tokyo.

President Park Geun-hye has already refused to hold a summit with Abe despite Washington’s repeated calls for more efforts to improve bilateral ties.

Experts called on Seoul to take a calmer and more strategic approach with Japan-related issues and refrain from emotionally responding to them.

“The ROK (Republic of Korea) must differentiate itself from China, whose typical approach is to lecture, condemn and berate Japan. This only further supports and strengthens Abe supporters and ultra-nationalists in Japan,” said Hwang of Georgetown University.

“Japan’s historical revisionism threatens the shared U.S.-Korean, indeed universal values of justice, human rights, and human dignity, and Koreans should make calm, rational arguments based on these reasons.”

By Song Sang-ho