The Japanese Perspective

"The Challenge for Park’s Summit with Obama after Abe’s Summit."


The most important factor we need to consider in directing our attention in East Asia to developments since Prime Minister Abe visited Washington is the change in relations between China, the rising superpower in the region, and the United States, the leading superpower defending and strengthening the status quo of the region. President Xi’s visit at the end of September showcases the present situation best. On security and political relations, the power rivalry was more than visible. Views of the two countries completely collided on the South China Sea, and although there was verbal agreement to avoid cyber war, it was obvious that everything will depend on concrete action and no sense of trust was felt on this issue. On the economic front, a lot of attention was given to the Seattle meeting between business leaders and Xi’s delegation, but anxiety caused by the recent collapse of China’s stock market and the fragility of its economic fundamentals was not eradicated.

Abe’s Actions over the Summer of 2015

In this era where tensions are rising between the two major actors, Japan and South Korea have taken their own conspicuous paths. For Abe this was an important period of political decisions: first, his seventieth year statement after the end of WWII, and second, adoption of security laws on September 19 by the Diet. Abe’s statement on August 14 attracted enormous attention inside and outside Japan. Abe was known to have views on history to justify Japan’s prewar honor and that history leading to WWII was a natural development of the rise of Japan; that everything related to the war was settled by treaties concluded after the war; that Japan has no reason to be reproached further by any country and be subjected to double or triple punishment and humiliation; and that the Murayama statement was self-mesmerizing based on Tokyo Tribunal judgements. Thus, “regaining the prewar honor of Japan” was one means to realize the most important political banner under which he came back to power in 2012: “getting out from the postwar regime.”

To be sure, after the end of the Cold War when the Japanese government and people reviewed external relations, humility about the past and reconciliation with Asia became the major direction and the 1995 Murayama statement, formulated by a cabinet decision, was the incarnation of this direction. Since then, for 20 years this statement has played an essential role in further reconciliation with South Korea, China, North Korea, Great Britain, Netherlands, and the United States. A well-known section reads as follows: “Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war,…and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations…I…express…my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.”

As it turned out, Abe’s statement in 2015 was much more a continuation of Japan’s fundamental policy since the Murayama statement than many had expected. The decisive statement of continuity was the following: “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war…Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” Furthermore, Abe unexpectedly made concrete some of the pain caused by Japan that was left abstract in the Murayama statement. About the sufferings of the people in Asia that merit “deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” Abe enumerated China, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia among others. No name of any country is mentioned in the Murayama statement. Abe’s statement also describes in concrete terms Murayama’s abstract “mistaken policy”: “With the Manchurian Incident,…Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order that the international community sought to establish after tremendous sacrifices. Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.” One may criticize Abe’s statement for using “aggression” and “colonial rule” only as a part of its description of Japan’s past history, and its reference to “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” is not so direct as Murayama’s, but, even so, it is abundantly clear that “aggression” and “colonial rule” are used with an unambiguous pledge never to repeat this behavior.

The adoption of new security laws is also closely connected with Abe’s political banner of “getting out from the postwar regime.” It has been long known that priority number one for Abe under this banner was to revise the Constitution—established in 1946 at the early stage of the occupation under the exclusive guidance of the occupation forces and, therefore, in need of remaking by the Japanese themselves; and containing Article 9, most in need of revision because of its excessive pacifism, which made Japan irresponsible, egocentric, and weak.

The newly adopted security laws lead in two directions. The first is to strengthen Japan’s contribution to international efforts in bringing about peace and stability, under the auspices of the United Nations, or based on the Japan-US defense guidelines. Japan’s contributions remain strictly limited to non-combat, rear area support or peacekeeping or reconstruction operations. More flexible deployment of forces closer to combat zones, and more flexible use of weapons to defend its own citizens or third country troops under its command as well as greater cooperation with US forces in areas outside those narrowly defined as the “Far East” by the Japan-US Security Treaty of 1960 will now be possible. The origin of this change started in 1990-1991, in the first Gulf Crisis, when efforts to send the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) failed because of a fixation on pacifism and when Japan was criticized as an egocentric country. Japan tried to overcome this failure through its “PKO Law” (92), “Surrounding Situation Law” (99), “Anti-terrorism Law” (01), and “Iraq Reconstruction Law” (03). Complex revision of existing laws and adoption of a new general law to allow those activities conducted under the auspices of the United Nations are the gist of the new security laws.

The second direction of the new security laws is the change of interpretation of Article 9. Japan’s established fixed interpretation is that “Japan possesses the right of collective self-defense from the point of view of international law, but the interpretation of Article 9 forbids its usage.” The new interpretation allows Japan to use the right of collective self-defense but only “when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in close relationship with Japan” causes threats against Japan in the same degree as threats if it were attacked for real. The origin of this revision goes back to 1960, when Japan revised the old Security Treaty concluded with the United States in 1951 together with the San Francisco Peace Treaty to include a new Article 5, which obligated the United States to defend Japan when territory under its administration is attacked. Article 5 juxtaposed with Article 9 of the Constitution created a situation of asymmetry, where US soldiers are obligated to defend Japan but Japanese soldiers are forbidden to do the same in accordance with its Constitution. This asymmetry had to be remedied sooner or later, and perhaps, internationally, the post-Cold War situation in the early 1990s was the most suitable period. But Japan was totally unprepared. Incremental steps described above could not halt North Korea’s intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters and abductions of Japanese citizens, as revealed officially in 2002, and China’s intrusions into the Senkaku territorial waters to prove its claim over these islands, as of September 2012. Given these concrete threats, it was high time to strengthen the alliance based on fundamental equality and reshape Japan’s defense posture.

While the first line of revision was incremental changes to expand international contributions, and the second change was limited changes of interpretation based on the pacifism over 70 years, it is difficult to label these as “against the Constitution.” Yet, in early June, when three constitutional scholars, including one who was seconded by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), testified before a Diet session that the new interpretation is “against the Constitution,” political dynamics in Japan changed. After that, for nearly four months waves of demonstration and loud protests from progressive newspapers—Asahi, Mainichi, and Tokyo—rallied people against the new laws. Two weeks after their adoption, under many new agendas, domestically and internationally, the people of Japan and the world are waiting to see Abe’s new cabinet’s follow-up policy initiatives.

Park’s Response to Abe’s Actions

President Park and the Korean government’s response to these two decisive actions taken by Abe, implementing his vision of “getting out from the postwar regime,” were relatively measured. The immediate reaction by the Korean presidential office on August 14 was that “it is a highly calculated statement. We need to analyze it and also watch the reaction by public opinion.”1 On August 15, the national liberation day of Korea (Gwangbokjeol), Park, while articulating in her statement that “there are no few unsatisfactory areas,” pointed out that “we pay attention that Abe made it clear in front of international society that positions articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future. Japan should show faithfully in action that it inherits previous recognition of history” and that “I hope for early resolution of the comfort women issue.”2 Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se stated to Segye Ilbo on August 18 on Abe’s statement that “while there are no few regrettable points, it is not the worst,” and that he considers it important that “positions expressed by the Murayama statement and previous cabinets remain unshakable.” He requested concrete actions, and expressed his expectation that the “comfort women” issue would move forward, adding that if the China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) summit takes place, “it will be possible to hold sincere bilateral talks between Korea and Japan.”3

The Korean government’s reaction to Abe’s security laws was even more restrained. A Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a statement on September 19 that “We expect that the Japanese government implement its security policy, upholding the spirit of a peaceful constitution toward contributing peace and stability to the region, and do it with transparency.”4 Kyodo Tsushin noted that while Korean media widely reported the adoption of the security laws and Yonhap News Agency warned that they might become “an important variable” to destabilize the situation in Northeast, the Park government was not in a position to say something negative on legal measures to strengthen support of the American military by the Japan SDF, and there is certainly no sign of such a move.5 Korean intellectuals raised such views as “security cannot be maintained by deterrence alone, and that dialogue and cooperation is also necessary. Japan should endeavor further toward enhancing confidence and cooperation in East Asia while maintaining realistic deterrence.”6 But in all fairness, these views are far less emotional than Japan’s civil movement of criticizing Abe for his “anti-constitutional move.”

Park’s positioning on regional security and the power balance, responding to these two decisive moves by Abe, is better manifested by her attendance at the military parade in Beijing on September 3, the day of “commemoration of victory in the war against Japan.” Her presence at the Tiananmen Square military parade was televised and reported throughout the world. Xi clearly gave her one of the top positions together with President Putin as China’s most cherished guest. The Korean presidential office briefed the press that “President Xi gave strict instructions to treat President Park with special care in her attendance at the parade and during her stay in Beijing.”7 Park had a bilateral meeting with Xi on September 2. The Korean government announced that “the two sides discussed intensively the issue of reunification,” that “for the first time, the Chinese and South Korean leaders have warned North Korea about its military provocation before it took place,” and that “we succeeded in creating a sound basis to hold strategic dialogue on the issue of unification.”8

Both the United States and Japan reportedly expressed concern about her attendance at the military parade. The US government explained that “there is no one other than her attending that parade among the leaders of the world which the US created after WWII. It is hoped that she understands that the Chinese missiles that President Park is going to review at the parade might be used against American aircraft carriers, which protect Korea in the event of a military emergency.” To this, the Korean side insisted that a Korea-US foreign ministers’ meeting took place before the parade, stating that Korea only is enhancing unification in the format the United States wants to achieve, and arguing, in that format, that China plays an important role.9 The Japanese government also conveyed its hope that a situation would be avoided where China and Korea jointly criticize Japan. To this, the Korean side replied that at the Park-Xi summit on September 2, an agreement would be made that toward the end of October or beginning of November a CJK summit would be held. Since Japan wanted that trilateral summit to take place, this Korea-China agreement to hold the summit would be positive for Korean relations with Japan.10

Has Park’s strategy to please both China and the United States succeeded? “Obviously not”, responded a Korean American scholar, a longtime resident of Washington, DC, and a specialist on peninsular questions:11

Washington. First, participation in the military parade of China, with which the United States and the world have many thorny security relations, simply cannot be welcomed by the United States. Second, South Korean propagandistic assertiveness on “deepening dialogue on the issue of unification” is much in doubt. Is it thinking unification on US terms? If so, unification presupposes regime change in North Korea…If not so, is South Korea prepared to join Xi’s unification idea, which does not exclude regime preservation? If it is taking the second option, how can it hold harmonious views with the United States? Third, how can the United States not be irritated by Korea’s loud emphasis that China-Korea cooperation is moving solidly on Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), where the United States is putting itself outside its scope? Fourth, even on Japan, admittedly Korea might have some legitimate grievances against Japan on the colonial period and on some of Abe’s revisionist agenda, but why should it provoke Japan unnecessarily by attending a military parade obviously directed, at least partially, against Japan, and emphasize common destiny with China?”

After Abe’s successful visit to DC in April and Xi’s visit in September fraught with tension, Park is going to visit Washington in October. Will her visit turn out to be a thorny one reflecting her leaning toward China and as result of her policies arousing irritation on the US side? Or will Park succeed in convincing the United States that it is in the core US interest to have an ally that keeps its distance from China, i.e. Japan, and another ally that has deep and trustworthy relations with China, consequently better equipped with information and better suited to pass on messages to China and, as necessary, to influence it—Korea naturally being the latter?

What are Japan’s expectations for Park’s visit to Washington DC? If the visit proves to be a difficult one, probably both the Abe government and public opinion in general would interpret it as a fair result for having taken such a leaning position toward China. But if the visit proves to be a real success, with many warm meetings with congressmen and Obama’s full smiles at the press conference, as if nothing had happened on September 3 in Beijing, most likely, the press, public opinion, opinion makers, and Abe’s government would find it difficult to understand why. The government would naturally refrain from making critical statements and, fundamentally, keep quiet. Opinion makers’ views may differ concerning the causes of this success. Some may argue that this is the result of American great power overreach without strategic clarity to use both the stick (Japan) and the carrot (Korea) against China. Others may argue that this is the result of American weakness because America cannot worsen its relations with an ally, even if it may be out of line, in this era of the rise of China. Many would take it as a double standard on the part of the United States, and would not find this comfortable. But there would be a few, may be not so many, who would think that Korea has a natural right to balance its relations between the two giants, and if it succeeded in doing so, fine, that is a credit to its diplomacy; and that Korean success poses, all the more, a real question to Japan to think further about what to do for the success of its own foreign policy.


1. Sankei Shimbun, August 15, 2015.

2. Sankei Shimbun, Osaka evening paper, August 15, 2015.

3. Asahi Shimbun, August 18, 2015.

4. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 19, 2015.

5. Kyodo Tsushin, September 19, 2015.

6. Cho Se-yon, Asahi Shimbun, September 20, 2015.

7. Shizuoka Prefecture analysis based on Korean media report, September 4, 2015.

8. Asahi Shimbun, September 18, 2015.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. He asked me not to reveal his identity. The meeting took place on October 2, 2015 in Tokyo.