Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ought to be on top of the world. He is politically secure both within his governing Liberal Democratic Party and among the electorate. On August 23 he will become Japan’s second-longest-serving prime minister, and on November 20 he will become No 1. If Abe continues in office until his term as leader of the LDP is due to run out at the end of September 2021, he will have established a record that future prime ministers will find hard to beat.
On the international stage Abe looms equally as large. The Group of Twenty Summit was held in Osaka in June, and these events, whatever the outcome, always bathe the host in a benevolent light.
Under Abe’s leadership, Japan has become more diplomatically activist than in the past. Tokyo is seen increasingly by Indo-Pacific middle and lesser powers as a dependable ally at a time of growing chaos in the relationship between the Washington and Beijing superpowers.
And yet there are sheets of rain slanting down on Abe’s parade. In every direction Abe looks, the weather appears grim.
Most of Abe’s travails are not of his own making. He cannot help it that Donald Trump is an untrustworthy fool, or that Xi Jinping has imperial ambitions. It’s not Abe’s fault that Vladimir Putin is a twisty-twiddler, who smarms and charms, but has no intention of giving back any of the four Japanese Kuril islands the Soviet Union grabbed at the end of World War II.
Some of Abe’s malaise is, however, of his own making.
Animosity toward Japan in South Korea is always sharp and easily excited because of abuses during the peninsula’s 35-year occupation by Imperial Japan. Indeed, Japan-bashing is an easy ploy for South Korean politicians in trouble, and it usually works. But in recent months relations have deteriorated to a point of bitterness where each country has imposed trade restrictions on the other.
This is an unwelcome addition to a fraught region already consumed by the war for supremacy between the United States and China, and petulant North Korea making increasingly threatening missile tests in order to get attention.
And it is Abe’s miscalculation and overreaction that appears largely to blame. What seems to have set off the current pushing and shoving between Seoul and Tokyo was a South Korean Supreme Court decision in October last year. The court ordered the Japanese company Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation to pay the equivalent of US$88,000 to each of four plaintiffs as compensation for forced labor during World War II.
The ruling could open the way for 15 similar cases against 70 Japanese companies on the same allegations. The list includes such companies as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Hitachi Zosen. If the companies are brought to court and penalties ordered, they could have their assets in South Korea seized if they refuse to pay up.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called the judgment “totally unacceptable.” To an extent it is easy to understand Tokyo’s exasperation and frustration.
Democratic, post-World War II Japan has struggled to atone for its militarist past. It has paid compensation and made countless apologies. But for the victim countries the money is never enough and they continue to doubt the sincerity of the apologies, with some justification.
For the most part, successive Japanese governments have been wise enough not to get too excited by the persistent chivvying from their former colonies. After all, these countries do have a point, and only in Taiwan is the period of Japanese colonial rule seen as a golden age of economic, civic and political advancement.
But on this occasion, the South Korean court decision seems to have gotten under Abe’s skin. On July 4, just a few days after vigorously defending free trade at the Osaka G20 summit, Abe’s government announced export controls to South Korea of three chemical ingredients crucial to the production of semiconductor chips and smartphones.
The Tokyo government justified the action by saying it feared these strategically important elements might be smuggled into North Korea. But the widespread belief is this is retaliation for the South Korean court decision and the failure of President Moon Jae-in to adhere to past agreements and compensation payments aimed at finalizing the issue.
Moon has not helped the situation. He rose to Tokyo’s bait and has announced controls on Japanese goods. Sales of Toyota cars fell by 32% in July and Honda by 34%.
The Tokyo-Seoul brouhaha comes at a time when the Sino-US trade war is causing both Asian and global turmoil. Japan has for years urged Washington to get tough on Beijing’s multitudinous abuses of the rules of global trade, but the reality of the Trump approach holds warnings for Tokyo.
Abe saw earlier than most that flattery was a key to dealing with Trump. The Japanese prime minister rushed to New York soon after the 2016 US election and was the first foreign leader to mount the Trump Tower elevator to congratulate the new family regime personally.
Abe has discovered, however, that flattery is not enough for Trump. It’s fawning sycophancy or nothing.
Trump’s ignorant and destructive fixation on the disparity in some US trade relations is currently focused on China, but Abe and his government have no doubt attention will soon turn to Japan. Already some Trump tariffs have been levied on Japan, and Tokyo is trying to be helpful by opening its market to more US agricultural products and upping it imports of US oil and gas. The problem, though, is that there are few US products Japanese consumers want or need to buy.
The other bee in Trump’s skewed bonnet is the cost of Washington’s defense commitments to its allies, including Japan, and his insistence they should foot more of the bill.
At immediate issue is Japan’s rejection of a US request that it send warships to protect shipping against Iranian attacks in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 80% of Japan’s imported oil passes.
There are two reasons for Japan’s refusal. One is that it has maintained generally friendly relations with Tehran, and doesn’t want to jeopardize that just because the war lobby around the Oval Office wants to invade Iran.
The other is that after World War II the occupying US forces imposed a pacifist constitution on Japan, which severely limits how Tokyo’s armed forces can be deployed and used. Joining US adventures in the Persian Gulf is not one of them, though Abe is well on the way to getting the constitution amended to allow Japan to be a more dependable and consistent military ally.
Japan as a dependable military ally of the US is one of the things that comes into Russian President Putin’s mind when he contemplates the problem of the Kuril Islands.
On the day the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. In the following weeks until Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, Soviet forces managed to gobble up large chunks of the imperial empire, including China’s Manchuria, the northern half of Korea, and the four southern islands in the Kurils chain.
These islands, reaching northeast of Hokkaido, are known in Japanese as the Northern Territories, and include Shikotan, Habomai, Kunashiri and Etorofu. They are still occupied by Russia, and as a result there is no peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow formally ending World War II.
Abe has put a great deal of time and effort into trying to get the Russian leader to agree to a formula for the return of the islands, which are now inhabited by about 15,000 Russians, their population of Japanese fishing families having fled long ago.
The Japanese prime minister has held out the prospect of increased economic ties with Russia as an inducement, and has even suggested a return to a joint declaration in 1956. By this, in return for a peace treaty Moscow would immediately return the two southernmost and smallest islands, Shikotan and Habomai, while leaving the resolution of the two larger islands until later.
Putin has shown some interest in this approach, but insists Tokyo must acknowledge that the Soviet Union’s occupation of the islands was lawful. Putin also wants a firm undertaking that the US will not be allowed to establish any kind of military installations on the islands, which cover the approaches to Russia’s Far Eastern navy base at Vladivostok.
Even with that, Putin has been vague about ever returning the two larger northern islands. When Abe tried to push the matter forward in a meeting with Putin at the Osaka G20 summit he got nowhere.
So while the view out of all the windows in Abe’s office may be grim at the moment, none of these dramas deserves to be called a crisis, a word too often used in order to get attention in this age of asphyxia-by-information.
Abe is having a bad summer, but by the time the maple leaves change color his world will probably look very different.