Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.04.01

Don't Alienate Japan's Internationalist Conservatives

JBpress on March 28, 2014

On March 23, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and vowed that nations must face the facts of history. This spontaneous visit by Abe was contrary to the recent propaganda by some neighbors against him and seems to represent the genuinely humane pacifist feelings of the silent majority of Japanese.

During the visit, Abe stated that "the 20th century was an era in which there were repeated wars and repression of human rights but the world should be free from such phenomena in the 21st century" and that "We would like to achieve peace by acknowledging historical issues in an open manner and passing down the lessons learned from history to the future generations."

With respect to the incident earlier this year where copies of Anne Frank's diary in Tokyo libraries and bookstores had pages torn out, he mentioned that the incident was "deeply regrettable" and he hoped that it would "never happen again." Such an act of vandalism, unprecedented in Japan, shocked the silent majority of Japanese who have no historical legacy of anti-Semitism.

Various reactions reached Tokyo after the visit. A senior rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, for example, reportedly praised the visit by saying that it is "an act of friendship and solidarity with the Jews of the past and the present" and that "Abe's moving remarks and deeds showed that Anne's words would not give in to those who try to destroy her legacy."

The Koreans, on the other hand, seem to have a different view. An editorial in a major Korean paper, for example, asserted that, while commending the visit, "The question is whether he is committed to world peace from the bottom of his heart" by hinting that the real purpose of his visit was "to appease the anger of Jewish people around the world" over the Anne Frank's diary incident.

The editorial concluded that "If Abe really wants to prove the sincerity of his acceptance of historical facts, he should have met the Dutch comfort women - who were also sexually exploited by Japanese soldiers during the war - and apologized to them." I sincerely hope that this kind of nationalistic sarcasm is not representative of the silent majority of South Koreans.

The argument that Abe should have met the Dutch ladies instead of visiting the Anne Frank House is simply wrong, because it attempts to compare the Holocaust with other inhumane tragedies. The Holocaust has no comparison and Auschwitz has no equivalent. That's the reason why Abe visited the memorial despite his tight schedule during the Nuclear Security Summit meetings.

What is more worrisome is that even some in the United States, intentionally or unintentionally, echo this kind of Korean sarcasm. They seem to be fearful that Abe is an ultra-nationalistic right-wing politician with feelings of distrust towards the United States. Unfortunately, those Americans, like many nationalistic Koreans in Seoul, simply miss the reality.

What they fail to understand is the wide spectrum of Japan's domestic political denominations. They range from the xenophobic ultra-left to the internationalist liberal left, the center-left, the centrists, the center-right, to the liberal conservative, the internationalist (pro-American) conservative, to the pro-American right-wing and to the xenophobic ultraright-wing.

Shinzo Abe is a conservative internationalist and one of the most pro-U.S. parliamentarians, while his supporters include those conservatives from the center-right to the ultraright-wing. The limited number of xenophobic ultraright-wingers, no matter how vocal they may sound in the media, are not as influential as they wish to be.

Simplistic U.S. demonization of Shinzo Abe or the Yasukuni Shrine, therefore, would only alienate the above-mentioned internationalist conservatives and pro-American right-wingers. Such a U.S. move would also embolden xenophobic conservatism in Japan and eventually force those pro-American internationalists to convert to the anti-American camp.

In a nutshell, it is imperative for those who believe in the Japan-U.S. security alliance to comprehend this subtle but important difference between the "internationalist" and "xenophobic" conservatives. If they fail to isolate the latter, it would ultimately endanger the U.S. strategic interests in Japan as well as in East Asia and the Western Pacific.