More than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party have been set back by the drubbing they took in last Sunday’s election in Japan.
An opportunity for leadership in Asia has faded. A chance to overcome the “demons of history” left from World War II has slipped away. The time to revise the pacifist constitution and to shoulder more of the common defense has been delayed. And Japan’s negotiating position has been weakened in talks intended to foil North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In Tokyo, the prime minister has been severely censured by his voters and now confronts a legislature in which his party controls the lower House of Representatives while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan controls the upper House of Councilors — a divided government, it might be said, not unlike that in Washington D.C.
A leading newspaper, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, referring to Mr. Abe and President Bush, noted in a midweek editorial: “Having lost their political momentum, both the Abe and Bush administrations are finding it increasingly difficult to resolve problems.”
Mr. Abe, took office last September with a head of steam inherited from the remarkably successful Junichiro Koizumi and has experienced repeated breakdowns that led the voters to administer a resounding defeat. Three Cabinet ministers resigned before the election for alleged corruption or controversial statements; a fourth, Agriculture Minister Norihiko Akagi resigned this week.
Mr. Koizumi had begun to nudge Japan out of the cocoon in which the Japanese had wrapped themselves after the defeat of World War II. A former deputy minister of foreign affairs, Hitoshi Tanaka, articulated the aspirations of many Japanese in a paper written before but published after the election, asserting Japan had the capacity to exert influence far beyond its shores.
To do so, Mr. Tanaka argued, “Japan must not only clarify its long-term vision for the region but also develop a clear policy through which to achieve its goals.” With a split government and electorate, Mr. Abe will find that difficult.
Moreover, the “demons of history” will continue to haunt Mr. Abe and Japan, as the politically disrupted nation will be able to do little to conquer them. The U.S. House of Representatives, for instance, passed a nonbinding resolution this week calling on Japan to apologize for recruiting hundreds of women into prostitution to serve as “comfort women” for soldiers during World War II.
The voice vote, meaning no record was made, was taken despite opposition from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, who asserted that six Japanese prime ministers had apologized since 1994. The senator, a Japanese-American who rarely comments on Japan, questioned the propriety of the United States condemning another nation when the U.S. was not involved.
“How would the U.S. government have reacted if the legislature of some other nation had condemned our historical actions in World War II?” the senator asked, referring to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during that war. He warned, as did prominent Japanese, that the resolution would harm U.S. relations with Japan.
Mr. Abe will have difficulty in pushing through a revision of Article IX of the constitution that constrains Japan’s armed forces and legislation permitting them to operate in collective defense with other nations, notably the United States. The U.S. has been quietly urging those changes.
Senior U.S. military officers said, however, they expected continued realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, such as consolidating bases and locating Japanese headquarters alongside U.S. headquarters. Said one: “The U.S. and Japan signed government-to-government agreements, which make this ‘a done deal,’ so to speak.”
The officers said North Korea, which is building missiles and nuclear weapons, and China, which has been rapidly expanding its forces, are still perceived to threaten Japan’s security. Citing North Korea, an officer said: “The continuing sense of Japan’s vulnerability in light of last year’s nuke test and missile launches will likely keep the initiatives going.”
The debate within Japan about acquiring nuclear weapons that has been generated by the perceived threats from North Korea and China will most likely continue. With a divided government, however, those who might advocate that their nation acquire nuclear arms would come up against even more obstacles than exist now in nuclear-allergic Japan.
As ever, the key to a nuclear Japan is held in Washington, not Tokyo. So long as the Japanese believe the U.S. will keep its commitments to defend Japan with nuclear weapons, if necessary, they will refrain from acquiring their own.
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.
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