On the face of it, conditions are hardly propitious for an improvement in Japan’s strained relations with its Asian neighbors. This week, more than 150 Japanese lawmakers paid their respects during the spring festival at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honors not only Japan’s war dead but also convicted war criminals. China and South Korea were duly incensed.
Then, on the eve of a state visit to Japan that will be followed by stops in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, President Barack Obama became the first American president to assure Japan that the Senkakus, a clutch of uninhabited islands also claimed by China, fall squarely under America’s defense obligations to its treaty ally. On arrival in Tokyo on April 23, he met informally with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a famous sushi bar before an official summit the following day.
Other barriers to better regional relations include a military radar station that Japan started building this month on Yonaguni, its westernmost island, and the court-ordered impounding of a Japanese merchant ship in a Chinese port in lieu of two Chinese vessels expropriated by Japan in the 1930s.
Nonetheless, growing diplomatic activity suggests that relations may soon become more constructive than all this acrimony suggests. Until recently leaders in China and South Korea said that they could not deal with Abe, a nationalist who thinks that Japan has apologized enough for its wartime aggression. Now both are putting out feelers to him. His government, in turn, is recognizing the costs to Japan of strained ties.
In theory Japan and South Korea have much in common. They are prosperous democracies and American allies in a fraught region. Even so, Abe’s own visit to Yasukuni last year and his belief that Japan does not need to apologize for the past, combined with a hypernationalist press in South Korea, inhibits rapprochement.
Nonetheless, in March, President Park Geun-hye agreed to a meeting with Abe in the presence of Obama at The Hague. Park says that, to demonstrate goodwill, Japan must make clear that it will not reopen issues of history, while showing sincerity on the issue of those whom the Japanese refer to as "comfort women," female Koreans and other conquered peoples who were duped or forced to perform sexual services for the Japanese armed forces during World War II.
On both counts Japan appears to have passed the South Korean president’s test. Abe recently made it clear that he stands by Japan’s previous expressions of remorse for the war and toward comfort women in particular. On April 16 senior diplomats from both sides met in Seoul to discuss how Japan could more fully make amends. Some 55 Korean former comfort women survive. Both individual apologies and compensation are at issue, though Japan has offered both before.
Regular monthly meetings between the two sides now are planned. In order for them to remain low-key, Japan has sought – and received – reassurances that the South Korean government no longer will inflame matters by openly endorsing anti-Japan protests in South Korea or anti-Japan grandstanding by third countries such as China. Both sides also want to find ways to put their territorial dispute, over the Korean island of Dokdo, which Japan claims and calls Takeshima, on the back burner.
They have reason to cooperate. The 50th anniversary of the two countries’ friendship treaty looms in June 2015. It would be a diplomatic disaster if they had nothing to celebrate, especially for Park, since it was her father, former dictator Park Chung-hee, who signed the treaty. If things go well in the coming months, however, Park might even extend an invitation to Japan’s Emperor Akihito.
China’s dispute with Japan seems less tractable. China has challenged Japan’s control over the Senkaku islands, which China calls the Diaoyus, even though they have been part of the Japanese realm for more than a century. China’s November declaration of an "air-defense identification zone" over the East China Sea seemed further to suggest that it was out to challenge the status quo in the region.
Recently, though, China’s leaders have quietly peddled a softer line. Japanese officials report noticeably fewer incursions by Chinese coast-guard vessels in recent weeks. On the diplomatic front, earlier this month an informal Chinese emissary named Hu Deping – son of a late reformist leader, Hu Yaobang, and a close friend of President Xi Jinping – came to Tokyo. He not only met former Japanese prime ministers and the foreign minister, but also met Abe in secret.
Crucial signals from China will come in early May, when an all-party group of Japanese parliamentarians heads to Beijing. Last year the trip was canceled when the group was told that no high Communist Party officials would meet it. This year one of its members, former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, is optimistic. He says that the group may meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi or even Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Who is wheeled out, Okada says, will say much about China’s intentions.
As for the thorny problem of North Korea, Mongolia recently brokered an official meeting, the first in years, between North Korean and Japanese officials. North Korea’s desire to get closer to Japan may partly be because of alarm that its sponsor, China, appears to be getting on famously with South Korea. However, it is chiefly because of a need for cash.
The chief topic of the talks is the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the rogue state in the 1970s and 1980s. The Japanese government believes that of 17 officially recognized abductees, a number may still be alive. It wants a proper accounting. In return, it may offer to ease commercial sanctions.
Being seen to improve relations with North Korea carries political risks in Japan, of course, but Abe’s hard-line credentials will stand him in good stead. He longs to claim a breakthrough on the abductees, and may seek progress even if North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test.
The prognosis for better relations extends to other countries too. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of South Koreans want better relations with Japan. The scope for their government, and China’s, to pursue that depends in part on Japan’s leader, however.
Abe the private man is a nationalist ideologue who harbors weirdly revisionist views about Japan’s past. Abe the prime minister, on the other hand, is a pragmatic internationalist who understands that pushing his private ideology is not always in Japan’s interest.
Abe did not visit Yasukuni during this spring’s rituals. So long as the prime minister remains ascendant over the private man, the thaw may continue.