Springtime in Tokyo?
Hints emerge that troubled relations could be improving in North-East Asia
ON THE face of it, conditions are hardly propitious for an improvement in Japan’s strained relations with its East Asian neighbours. This week over 150 Japanese lawmakers paid their respects during the spring festival at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo (pictured above), which honours not only Japan’s war dead but also convicted war criminals. South Korea and China were duly incensed.
Then, on the eve of a state visit to Japan (he goes on to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines), Barack Obama became the first American president to assure Japan that the Senkakus, a clutch of uninhabited islands also claimed by China, fell squarely under America’s defence obligations to its treaty ally. On arrival in Tokyo on April 23rd, he met informally with Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, at a famous sushi bar before an official summit the following day.
Other barriers to better regional relations include a military radar station Japan has started building this month on Yonaguni, its westernmost island; and the court-ordered impounding of a Japanese merchant ship in a Chinese port in lieu of two Chinese vessels expropriated by Japan in the 1930s.
Yet growing diplomatic activity suggests relations may soon become more constructive than all this acrimony suggests. Until recently leaders in South Korea and China said that they could not deal with Mr Abe, a nationalist who thinks Japan has apologised enough for its wartime aggression. Now both are putting out feelers to him. His government, in turn, is recognising the costs to Japan of strained ties.
In theory, Japan and South Korea have much in common. They are prosperous democracies and American allies in a fraught region. Yet Mr Abe’s own visit to Yasukuni last year and his belief that Japan does not need to apologise for the past, combined with a hypernationalist press in South Korea, inhibits rapprochement. Nonetheless, in late March President Park Geun-hye agreed to a meeting with Mr Abe in the presence of Mr Obama in The Hague. Ms Park says that to demonstrate goodwill, Japan must make clear that it will not reopen issues of history, while showing sincerity on the issue of those whom the Japanese refer to as “comfort women”, who were duped or forced to perform sexual services for the Japanese armed forces in the second world war.
On both counts, Japan appears to have passed the South Korean president’s test. Mr Abe recently made it clear that he stands by Japan’s previous expressions of remorse for the war and towards comfort women in particular. On April 16th senior diplomats from both sides met in Seoul to discuss how Japan could more fully make amends. Some 55 Korean former comfort women survive. Both individual apologies and compensation are at issue (though Japan has offered both before).
Regular monthly meetings between the two sides are now planned. In order for them to remain low-key, Japan has sought—and received—reassurances that the South Korean government will no longer inflame matters by openly endorsing anti-Japan protests in South Korea or anti-Japan grandstanding by third countries such as China. Both sides also want to find ways to kick their territorial dispute—Japan claims the Korean island of Dokdo, which it calls Takeshima—into the long grass.
They have reason to co-operate. The 50th anniversary of the two countries’ friendship treaty looms in June 2015. It would be a diplomatic disaster if they had nothing to celebrate, especially for Ms Park—it was her father, Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s former dictator, who signed the treaty. If things go well in the coming months, Ms Park might even extend an invitation to Japan’s emperor, Akihito.
China’s dispute with Japan seems less tractable. China has challenged Japan’s control over the Senkaku islands (which China calls the Diaoyus), even though they have been part of the Japanese realm for over a century. China’s declaration of an “air-defence identification zone” over the East China Sea in November seemed further to suggest that it was out to challenge the status quo in the region.
Recently, though, China’s leaders have quietly peddled a softer line. Japanese officials report noticeably fewer incursions by Chinese coastguard vessels in recent weeks. On the diplomatic front, earlier this month an informal Chinese emissary, Hu Deping, son of a late reformist leader, Hu Yaobang, and a close friend of the Communist Party’s general secretary, Xi Jinping, came to Tokyo. He did not just meet former Japanese prime ministers and the foreign minister. In secret, he also met Mr Abe.
Crucial signals from China will come in early May, when an all-party group of Japanese parliamentarians heads to Beijing. Last year the trip was cancelled when the group was told no high Communist Party officials would meet it. This year, one of its members, Katsuya Okada, a former foreign minister, is optimistic. He says the group may meet China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, or even the prime minister, Li Keqiang. Whoever is wheeled out, Mr Okada says, will say much about China’s intentions.
As for the thorny problem of North Korea, Mongolia recently brokered an official meeting, the first in years, between North Korean and Japanese officials. North Korea’s desire to get closer to Japan may partly be because of alarm that its sponsor, China, appears to be getting on famously with South Korea. But it is chiefly because of a need for cash.
The chief topic of the talks is the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the rogue state in the 1970s and 1980s. The Japanese government believes that of 17 officially recognised abductees, a number may still be alive. It wants a proper accounting. In return, it may ease commercial sanctions.
Being seen to improve relations with North Korea carries political risks in Japan. But Mr Abe’s hardline credentials will stand him in good stead. He longs to claim a breakthrough over the abductees, and may seek progress even if North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test.
The prognosis for better relations extends to other countries, too. Opinion polls suggest a majority of South Koreans want better relations with Japan. Scope for their government, and China’s, to pursue that depends in part on Japan’s leader. Mr Abe the private man is a nationalist ideologue who harbours weirdly revisionist views about Japan’s past. But Mr Abe the prime minister is a pragmatic internationalist who understands that pushing his private ideology is not always in Japan’s interest. Mr Abe did not visit Yasukuni during this spring’s rituals. So long as the prime minister remains ascendant over the private man the thaw may continue.
From the print edition The Economist
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