Everyone knows that almost all politicians, of whatever stripe, dissemble. If they do not outright lie, they shade the truth. So when a politician is candid, it can be startling.
In that vein, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given a strikingly candid interview to Foreign Affairs. Abe asserts that the Chinese “lie,” that for Japan to fail to help defend the US would be “insane” and that he has “deep remorse” for the suffering Japan caused before and during World War II.
The prime minister, who took office in December last year, is credited with having begun the revival of Japan’s moribund economy with a plan that has been called “Abenomics.”
Says the Economist, which has often been critical of Japan: “Mr. Abe is electrifying a nation that had lost faith in its political class.”
However, the sori-daijin, as the prime minister is known in Japanese, has not escaped controversy. He has aroused anger among his domestic opponents, critics in the US and the West, the Chinese and the Koreans, North and South, all of whom accuse Abe of being a dangerous right-wing nationalist.
Abe told Foreign Affairs that he has turned to social media to address the public directly.
“Oftentimes, the legacy media only partially quote what politicians say,” he says. “This has prevented the public from understanding my true intentions.”
“I have never been media shy,” he adds.
On the issue of who owns the Senkaku Islands, called the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) by the Chinese [and Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列嶼) by Taiwan], Abe asserts: “That Chinese claim means Japan should admit that there exists an issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved. We can never let this argument take place. The Chinese side has been using a similar argument against Vietnam and the Philippines to gain control over islands in the South China Sea.”
“We have never agreed with the Chinese to shelve the issue of the Senkaku Islands,” Abe says. “To say that we have in the past is a complete lie by the Chinese.”
Of the issues between the US and Japan, perhaps the question of collective defense is the most troubling. The US-Japan security treaty obliges the US to come to the aid of Japan with military force if Japan is attacked. The Japanese have no such obligation if the US is attacked.
“Imagine that US vessels on the high seas were being attacked and an armed ship, say an Aegis-type destroyer, from Japan, America’s treaty ally, was just passing by,” Abe says. “The arrangement we currently have in Japan does not allow the destroyer to make any response whatsoever. That is insane.”
As things stand now, the prime minister says, the majority of Japanese oppose the use of force for collective defense.
“But when we present a specific case involving, for instance, a missile launch by North Korea,” he says, “and we explain to the public that Japan could shoot down missiles targeting Japan, but not missiles targeting the US island of Guam, even though Japan has the ability to do so, then more than 60 percent of the public acknowledges that this is not right.”
Thus he advocates a constitutional amendment that would make legitimate Japan’s participation in collective defense.
Probably no question has caused more furor than what is known as the “history issue,” or what some academics call the “demons of history.” It includes a gamut of allegations ranging from invasions, atrocities and torture, to “comfort women” forced into prostitution servicing soldiers.
Asked about that, Abe says: “Let me set the record straight. Throughout my first and current terms as prime minister, I have expressed a number of times the deep remorse that I share for the tremendous damage and suffering Japan caused in the past to the people of many countries, particularly in Asia. I have explicitly said that, yet it made few headlines.”
Yet when asked whether Japan’s war on China, Korea and the US amounted to “aggression,” Abe seems to equivocate: “I have never said that Japan has not committed aggression. Yet at the same time, how best, or not, to define ‘aggression’ is none of my business. That’s what historians ought to work on.”
In the end, the prime minister looks to the future and seeks to leave on an upbeat note, saying: “I have been saying that our work is to discuss what kind of world we should create in the future.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.