Koizumi’s dangerous promise

Brad Glosserman – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
HONOLULU When Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro of Japan last week made his fifth visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, the protests from other Asian nations fell on deaf ears. If Koizumi’s determination is plain, so too are the consequences, and they are the real issue in the debate over Yasukuni, where Japan’s war dead are remembered. Tokyo’s readiness to stoke tensions by ignoring the concerns of its neighbors undermines its efforts to play a leading role in the region.
Koziumi pledged four years ago that he would visit Yasukuni every year if elected head of his party. He has done so, determined to keep a promise to constituents, but also to honor the country’s war dead, to reinvigorate and legitimate healthy patriotism in Japan, to underscore his government’s commitment to peace, and to push his country closer to “normalcy” in international relations.
After this week’s visit, China reacted with vitriol, saying it “hurt the feeling and dignity” of victims of Japanese aggression during World War II and that it “seriously undermined Chinese-Japanese relations.” Senior-level meetings between the two countries were canceled, as was a visit by Japan’s foreign minister, Machimura Nobutaka, to discuss the oil field dispute in the South China Sea.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed “disappointment and outrage,” while Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon canceled his visit to Japan this month and a similar fate is likely for the meeting scheduled later this year between Koizumi and South Korea’s president, Roh Moo Hyun.
Significantly, even Southeast Asians have been upset by the visit. Singapore’s Straits Times editorialized that the visit showed Japan “clearly does not value” relations with neighboring countries.
That is the most important point. There is no disputing a Japanese prime minister’s right to honor the country’s war dead or to instill a healthy patriotism in the Japanese public. But the determination to play to domestic audiences has a high and rising international price: It isolates Japan and forfeits Tokyo’s claim to a leading role in Asia.
Even Singapore, which favors deepened Japanese engagement with the region, has been forced to complain. The concern isn’t revamped militarism, but Tokyo’s seeming indifference to the consequences of its actions.
This lack of concern for foreign sentiment makes it harder for other countries, such as China, to compromise on key issues, like territorial disputes. Tokyo can expect no sympathy as it tries to rally support for its demand that North Korea address the abductee issue in multilateral negotiations. The Yasukuni visit plainly undermines the country’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Isolated within the region, Tokyo is pushed closer to the United States. While that may help the alliance in the short-term, it could be dangerous over time. No country should ever be seen as lacking options, which encourages allies and partners to take it for granted. There is a real risk that U.S. “support” might one day be seen as “indulgence.”
While withholding judgment on the merits of shrine visits, U.S. policymakers have every reason to be concerned about the consequences of the visits and their impact on America’s ability to protect its national interests. Tokyo’s behavior could be seen as heightening tension in the region, and the United States could be blamed for encouraging it.
A U.S. administration that focuses on solving problems rather than on the history of the alliance might well be less supportive of Japan. In this context, the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program are an important test, as is the upcoming World Trade Organization ministerial meeting: Japan’s reluctance to embrace agricultural reform – always a tough issue – is likely to irritate Washington. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t stop in Japan on his way to the region, reportedly the result of frustration over a lack of progress in troop realignment issues.
Koizumi has made his point; now he, and his successor, should be concerned about Japan’s standing in the region. A compromise on Yasukuni would not undermine his larger mission of rehabilitating Japan in the eyes of the world.
(Brad Glosserman is the executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.)


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