Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.05.08

Abe Did What Koizumi Could Not

JBpress on May 01, 2015

Various arguments have been made regarding Prime Minister Abe's speech to Congress on April 29. Some said that, "Abe for the first time on the record and in public accepted responsibility for the horrors inflicted on Asia by Imperial Japan," while others claimed that, "Abe stops short of apology in Congress." Neither side, however, seems to have heard the dog whistle--the unspoken message--in Abe's remarks.

It might have been difficult for you to hear the whistle if you don't read and speak Japanese. It is especially so if you have not been following Japan's post-WWII domestic politics. For those who have, the message was crystal clear, seeming to say "Abe did in 2015 what Koizumi could not do in 2005-6."

You may wonder what the difference is all about. Yes, in 2005 Koizumi did virtually 'copy and paste' the Murayama statement of 1995, including those famous key words, so important to Koreans, which Abe did not. Yes, Abe was invited to deliver a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, while Koizumi in 2006 was not.

If you just focus on the use or non-use of the words 'apology,' 'aggression' or 'colonial rule,' you won't get it. This is not about semantics or ceremonial modality, either. Simply put, it is about the historical role of conservative politicians who can make a difference when they face a turning point in history. For those who still don't get it, let me list some examples of those great statesmen.

First is Menachem Begin of Israel. Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, he was the leader of the die-hard Zionist militant group Irgun. He had been considered one of the most conservative Zionists in the early days of Israel. Nobody dared to question his hardline credentials vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat in particular, until 1977.

Things started to change in 1978. Begin was invited, together with Arafat, by then U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Camp David. There the Israeli and Palestinian top leaders shook hands and signed the Camp David Accords. If a liberal Prime Minister of Israel had tried the same thing as Begin did, he or she would have eventually been removed from the post.

It was because it was done by Begin, a hardliner and die-hard conservative politician, that the rest of Israel, and most importantly the right wing communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere, accepted the historical accord with Arafat. Begin's most significant achievement was the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, for which he and Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Another example is Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. Nixon was considered one of the most prominent opponents of global communism, speaking out harshly against the threat of the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China. Nixon maintained friendly relations with his fellow anti-communist, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Things started to change in 1971. He sent Henry Kissinger to Beijing and in 1972 visited China himself. Who could have imagined that conservative Dick would embrace Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou in Beijing? Had George McGovern been president and decided on a similar rapprochement with China and visited Beijing, could U.S.-China relations have survived?

Shinzo Abe may be no Begin or Nixon. But his die-hard patriotic credentials are similar to theirs. In other words, it was because the hardline conservative Shinzo Abe said before the U.S. Congress that he will uphold the previous prime ministers' statements, that Japanese conservative or right wing politicians can no longer effectively challenge the Murayama statement.

The following is what he said and it is crystal clear: "Post war, we started out on our path bearing in mind feelings of deep remorse over the war. Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard."

The day before the speech, Abe stated to President Obama as well as to the world, including his fellow conservatives in Japan, that the Abe Administration would not revise the Kono apology on comfort women. Shinzo Abe himself said that. This could, hopefully and finally, help us get closer to making a national consensus on history issues in the Japanese political arena.

This could not have been done by Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005 simply because, although he was a conservative political fighter, he was never considered a leader of the LDP's conservative camp. Prime Minister Abe, however, is a conservative policy maker who is interested in and well aware of the substance of the issues. That's why Abe can make a difference where Koizumi could not.

Those who don't like Abe and his views, go ahead and keep on criticizing him. But if you do, in Tokyo we could lose any minimum national consensus on history issues, something that is indispensable for Japan (especially for the parliamentarians in the Japanese Diet), in moving forward to start pursuing a real international reconciliation with our Asian neighbors.