The US Perspective

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


Positive US responses to Abe’s defense and history initiatives leave South Korea’s Japan policy in limbo. The Abe statement in early August and the legislation that the Diet passed in late September (after the Abe cabinet’s approval in early July) have given new impetus to Tokyo’s foreign policy and relations with Washington, challenging Park Geun-hye to find an effective response when she meets with Barack Obama. The legislation that passed alters Japanese defense policy in a way as radical as the Japanese government’s decision to create the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in 1954. It gives the Japanese military a new mission—collective self-defense. The SDF no longer will be limited to a mission to only defend the homeland from attack. The government now has the power to order the SDF to come to the aid of a friendly foreign country under attack if the attack is seen as a threat to Japan’s survival. The SDF could provide logistical support to armed forces engaged in operations of importance to Japan’s security and is given wider latitude on the use of weapons in peacekeeping operations.

Japan’s Collective Self-Defense

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his supporters argue that the mission of collective self-defense is a legitimate reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, which forbids Japan from maintaining armed forces and renounces the right of belligerence. They also argue that such a step is necessary as part of a process under which Japan would become a “normal nation” no longer shackled by the constraints imposed on it as a result of its defeat in World War II. As the Abe government readied the legislation, latent domestic opposition erupted into a major public debate. Critics accused Abe of a fundamental violation of Article 9. One group of 9,000 scholars has campaigned actively against the legislation. Opposition also has taken hold in the Japanese public. Polls throughout 2015 showed a decided majority opposed to collective self-defense with support usually below 40 percent. As the Upper House of the Diet passed the legislation, a poll in the Nikkei Business Daily found 54 percent of Japanese opposed and only 31 percent in support. Support for the Abe government stood at only 40 percent.1 Public opposition became active in the form of massive protest demonstrations; however, Abe has stood firm, citing the decision of his grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, to sign a security treaty with the United States in 1960 in the face of mass public protests.

Military support for friendly foreign countries under collective self-defense is aimed foremost at the United States, Japan’s ally under the 1960 Security Treaty. New US-Japan defense guidelines, issued in late 2014, foreshadowed Abe’s program, calling for more direct Japanese military support of the United States. During his visit to Japan in April 2014, Obama “enthusiastically welcomed Japan’s desire to play a greater role in upholding international security” and expressed support for Abe’s policy of “reviewing existing limits on the exercise of collective self-defense.”2 As the legislation moved forward in 2015, US support was strong. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Japan’s “historic transition in the defense relationship” in a meeting with the Japanese foreign and defense ministers in April.3 During Abe’s visit to Washington, Obama repeated his support for Japan’s expanded defense role in the joint press conference on April 28. Members of Congress praised Abe when he assured them during the visit that the Diet would pass the legislation in the summer.4 When the Upper House passed the legislation, the State and Defense departments and the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives Armed Services committees all issued statements supporting passage.

The most immediate positive for the United States appears to be Japan’s interest in becoming involved militarily in the South China Sea situation. The Obama administration has voiced increasing concern over China’s policy of converting reefs into man-made islands with docks and airfields suitable for naval vessels and jet fighters. Abe also has criticized these activities.5 Especially important are Japan’s overtures to the Philippines (the main US ally in Southeast Asia) for security cooperation. The two have conducted two naval exercises in the South China Sea and are discussing concluding a “visiting forces agreement” that would allow Japanese military units to visit for joint training and exercises with the Philippine military. US military officials have praised Japan’s initiative and disclosed that Washington has urged Japan to provide military assistance to the Philippines. In August 2015, the US, Philippine, and Japanese navies conducted a combined maritime humanitarian exercise in the South China Sea.6 Japan has also taken initiatives toward Vietnam, China’s other major antagonist in the South China Sea.  Under a new agreement, Japan will supply Vietnam with maritime patrol ships.

Thus, there can be no doubt that Abe’s collective self-defense policy and his liberal interpretation of its parameters have been pleasing to US policy-makers and military officials, who have been perplexed over how to respond to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. China has criticized strongly the collective self-defense legislation and has warned Japan about its growing role in the South China Sea. In turn, South Koreans have let their concerns about “transparency” or even unnecessary antagonism of China cloud their responses, rarely showing approval for stronger US-Japan alliance ties despite their relevance for managing China’s assertiveness, and also for defense against North Korea.

Abe’s History Statements: Placating the United States, Downplaying South Korea

The Abe government’s relations with the United States over the Japan history issue had remained tenuous in 2014. The “comfort women” issue dominated an intense internal debate as revisionists pressed their argument that “comfort women” were not coerced into sexual service for the Japanese military during the Pacific War (1931-1945) but were volunteers. The Obama administration, especially the State Department, tried to limit involvement in the issue; but US officials did assert on occasion that the Japanese government and military were guilty of grievous human rights violations in their conscription of “comfort women.” Non-government American experts were more critical of Japan on the issue. Abe faced having to make two major statements on the history issue in 2015: first, in Washington during his visit in April; second a statement on August 15 for the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Abe’s strategy appeared to be to portray the history of the WWII period in a way that would correspond to and satisfy American views of that period and the role of the United States in the war. Another part of his strategy was to speak only in general terms about Japan’s treatment of the East Asian countries it had occupied and speak little about the “comfort women” issue and about Korea. 

In Washington, Abe visited the WWII monument on the Mall. In his speech to Congress, he stated that American soldiers and sailors had made “sacrifices in defending freedom.” In short, he acknowledged that the United States had fought for a just cause. He referred to Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Corregidor, and the Coral Sea “with deep repentance in my heart,” adding “eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.” In his seventieth anniversary speech, he alluded to Japan’s “aggression” and spoke of “the former [allied] prisoners of war who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military.” He praised the “goodwill and assistance” extended to Japan in the postwar period by the United States, Australia, and European countries.

Abe acknowledged in general terms that Japan had inflicted deep suffering on the peoples of East Asia during the war, referring to the “innocent people” subjected by Japan to “immeasurable damage and suffering.” However, on the “comfort women” issue, he avoided any substantive admission of Japanese responsibility.  In the April 28 news conference with Obama, he described them as “a result of victimization due to human trafficking.” He declared to the Congress that “armed conflicts have always made women suffer most.” He stuck to this theme in the seventieth anniversary speech, speaking generally that “there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.” Abe, thus, avoided assigning responsibility for the “comfort women” system to the Japanese government and military of that day. 

At the news conference, he defended Japan’s “various efforts to provide realistic relief for the comfort women,” an undoubted reference to the assistance programs in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Japan’s Asian Womens’ Fund. One could consider that defense a veiled admission of Japanese responsibility for their suffering. Abe also reaffirmed that “the Abe Cabinet upholds the [1993] Kono Statement and has no intention to revive it.”

A notable element of Abe’s statement was the lack of any mention of Korea. In contrast, Abe spoke about Japan’s invasion of China as a “wrong course,” praising the “Chinese people” for their assistance to Japanese children left behind in 1945 after Japan’s surrender and withdrawal from China. Abe did voice an implied reference to South Korea’s demand for apologies by stating that future generations of Japanese should not have to apologize for Japan’s conduct during the Pacific War.

Abe’s strategy clearly was successful with the Obama administration and some key elements of American opinion. Vice President Biden praised Abe’s speech to Congress, saying that the Prime Minister “made it very clear that there was responsibility on Japan’s part.”7 At the April 28 news conference, Obama noted that Japan was “a peace-loving country. . .over multiple decades.”  The administration reacted to Abe’s seventieth anniversary statement with a White House statement that: “We welcome Prime Minister Abe’s expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the World War II era as well as his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history.”

The White House statement hinted at the influence Abe’s collective self-defense policy had on the positive view of Abe’s history declarations. It said that Washington valued Abe’s assurances of Japan’s intent to expand its contribution to international peace and prosperity.8 The Washington Post, a frequent critic of Abe’s past statements on history, editorialized on August 15, that “Abe’s statement is far more conciliatory and less nationalistic than his critics feared it would be.”  Like the Obama administration, the editorial voiced support for Abe’s “efforts to reinterpret Japan’s ‘peace’ constitution, which would allow Japan to help its allies, including the United States, when they come under fire. . . .” The editorial probably expressed most official and expert US opinion toward Abe’s strategy of linking the collective self-defense issue and the history issue.

The Dilemma of South Korea’s Response

The success of Abe’s strategy toward the United States placed South Korea in a dilemma in seeing its key ally, the United States, distance itself further from South Korea’s critical stances toward the Abe government on the history issue and the collective self-defense policy. The immediate ROK government reaction to Abe’s statements in Washington in April 2015 was in line with past criticisms. President Park and other officials criticized Abe for not stating an explicit “apology” for Japan’s treatment of occupied peoples, including an apology for “Japan’s wartime sex slavery” (Park’s words).9 Civic groups, and notably 53 surviving Korean “comfort women,” condemned Abe’s statements in Washington.10 The Foreign Ministry noted that Abe’s reference to “comfort women” being victims of “human trafficking” evaded the responsibility of the Japanese government of that time for the system.11  

ROK officials quickly noticed the contrast between the South Korean criticisms and the Obama administration’s positive reaction to Abe’s statements as well as the lack of strong criticisms coming out of the Congress, even concluding that the United States was “taking Japan’s side” in the history dispute. They also noted a speech by high-ranking State Department official Wendy Sherman in March, warning against “vilifying a former enemy [Japan]” in order to receive “cheap applause.”  She stated, “historical disputes …limit future possibilities for cooperation.” Sherman also spoke of South Korean and Chinese opposition to “any change in Japanese defense policy.”12

As August 15 approached, Park made several remarks about Abe’s upcoming seventieth anniversary statement. This time, she avoided concentrating on the “comfort women” issue. She also did not demand an explicit apology from Abe, just emphasizing that he should reaffirm the 1995 Murayama statement, which expressed remorse and apology for Japan’s history of aggression and colonial rule. She did call on Abe to use words from both the Murayama statement and the 1993 Kono statement on “comfort women.”13 Park’s reaction to Abe’s August 15 statement was muted, saying briefly that it contained “regrettable elements” with no elaboration. In her own speech marking Korea’s “Liberation Day” of August 15, 1945, she referenced Abe’s statement that he would uphold statements by previous Japanese leaders. Her statement only represented some moderation of her earlier criticisms of Abe, which did not prevent her from choosing to attend China’s commemoration of Japan’s 1945 surrender on September 3, 2015. She attended despite reported Obama administration opposition to her attendance.

The South Korean government reacted more critically to the passage of the collective self-defense legislation,. issuing a statement on September 20 that Japan should “stand by the spirit of the pacifist constitution,” and more pointedly, “Japan’s right of collective self-defense on the Korean peninsula or over the issues concerning our national interests cannot be accepted without our request or consent.” Several Korean NGOs strongly criticized the legislation, saying it represents a return to Japanese militarism.14

The Park administration, despite continuing suspicion of Abe, began to show signs of wanting to thaw the frozen relationship with Japan. Park and Abe met briefly at the United Nations at the end of September, reportedly discussing the holding of a trilateral summit meeting with China at the end of October. Park found herself pulled both by the Obama administration’s favorable view of Abe’s policies and, ironically, a shift in China’s approach toward Japan. China continued to criticize both Abe’s collective self-defense policy and his statements on history; however, Xi Jinping began to stress the need for engagement with Japan in 2015.  At China’s seventieth anniversary commemoration, he discussed favorably with Park the holding of a trilateral summit.

The Park Summit with Obama

The Obama administration can be expected to encourage Japan to expand its collective self-defense policy as applied to the South China Sea. As in the Middle East, the administration increasingly seeks allies to help fill the void of its difficulties in fashioning a strategy to deal with adversaries, in this case, China. If Japan moves ahead with military support of the Philippines, this will be a big factor in US priorities for the alliance with Japan and how the United States views Japan-South Korean relations. This suggests a broad regional outlook on security, not Park’s narrower Korean Peninsula centered view.

Moves by South Korea and Japan to improve relations likely will be tentative.  There may be meetings in the future between Park and Abe, but military cooperation will be minimal.  Park likely will prefer trilateral meetings involving China rather than bilateral summit meetings and likely will be hesitant to get too far in front of China in improving relations with Japan. South Korean domestic opinion will continue to have a strong anti-Japan element to which South Korean political leaders will listen.

Whether any progress in relations between South Korea and Japan takes place will be influenced strongly by the state of the history issue in Japan following Abe’s August statement, which left the door open for continued debate in Japan over the “comfort women” issue. In his statements, he did not come close to affirming the historical accuracy of the Kono statement. Important advocates of revisionism in Japan have largely been silent about Abe’s history statements, indicating that they may not be happy over his admissions of Japanese guilt; they likely will have ample opportunity to revive their claim that “comfort women” were volunteers not subject to coercion. If that happens and if Abe issues statements sympathetic to this view, South Korean-Japan relations will turn downward again. Changes in Japanese history textbooks that dilute the “comfort women” issue also would draw new criticism. The same would be true if the Japanese government highlights its claim to Takeshima (Dokdo). South Korea likely would become even more cautious about improving relations with Japan if Japan-China relations and/or US-China relations worsen. China no doubt will use the leverage it has, because of the North Korea issue, to influence South Korea to maintain anti-Japan positions. 

Besides the South China Sea issue, there appear to be at least two issues that could affect how Japan’s collective self-defense policy affects South Korea-Japan relations. One is the outcome of likely legal challenges to the policy in Japanese courts or the impact of future Japanese elections. Another is how South Korea, Japan, and the United States deal with South Korea’s declaration of September 20, 2015 that Japan cannot carry out collective self-defense military measures on the Korean Peninsula without South Korea’s consent. There are reports of an “understanding” between Japan and South Korea over this; however, there are military scenarios in which Japan and/or the United States might seek to act related to Japan’s role without heeding the position of the ROK government. Two such scenarios are a full-scale Korean war and a North Korean missile attack on Japan. This issue likely is not close to being settled.


1. “Support for Abe sags after security bills passes,” Reuters News, September 21, 2015; “Japan security: gloves off,” The Economist, July 11, 2015.

2. “Obama responds to questions from Yomiuri Shimbun,” Japan News, April 23, 2014.

3. Kuni Miyake, “How mutual has the Mutual Security Treaty become?” The Nelson Report, May 26, 2015.

4. Japan’s security,” The Economist, July 11, 2015.

5. “Wary of China, Japan and Vietnam boost security ties,” Reuters News, September 15, 2015.

6. “Japan may give planes to Manila for South China Sea patrols: sources,” Reuters News, August 6, 2015; “Japan joins U.S.-Philippine humanitarian drills amid China Sea dispute,“ Reuters News, August 14, 2015.

7. Kyodo News, April 30, 2015.

8. “U.S. welcomes Abe’s statement on war anniversary,” Reuters News, August 14, 2015.

9. “Abe missed his chance on history: Park,” The Korea Herald, May 4, 2015.

10. “Abe dims prospects for Korea-Japan ties,” The Korea Herald, April 30, 2015; “Civic groups call for U.S. action over Abe’s speech,” The Korea Herald, April 28, 2015.

11. “Abe urged to clarify views on WWII sex slaves,” The Korea Herald, April 28, 2015.

12. “Harry W.S. Lee, America’s frustration with South Korea,” The Nelson Report, March 11, 2015.

13. “Park urges Abe to uphold 1995 view in upcoming war statement: Okada,” The Japan Times, August 5, 2015.

14. “Seoul wary of Japan’s security shift,” The Korea Herald, September 20, 2015.