Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


How to be friendlier with the neighbours
Ushio - November 2006

At one time, when there was a clear distinction between leftists and rightists in politics, the main task for political candidates was to sound different from one another. Socialists and conservative right-wingers read from quite different scripts. Now, following the discrediting of socialism and the fall of the Soviet Union, this is much harder. In fact, I often think that political candidates these days try to sound the same as each other, not different.

Although the candidates to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the LDP and thus prime minister were all from the same party, it still seemed notable that on many subjects they tried harder to sound the same than to sound different. Following Mr Koizumi’s election success in 2005, all had to say they favoured economic reform, but were opposed to some strange doctrine called "market fundamentalism", a doctrine no one professes to believe in. This is because of the popular worry about growing inequality in Japanese society and the idea that it might have been caused by the Koizumi reforms.

Such consensus was not, perhaps surprising: no politician would want to say he was actually in favour of growing inequality nor blind to it as a problem. But to me there was another, more surprising area of shared language. It lay in foreign policy. All the candidates were keen to claim that they hoped to bring about warmer and smoother relations with Japan’s East Asian neighbours, China and South Korea.

Well, perhaps no one would want to claim they favoured colder and bumpier relations with foreign countries. But this apparent unity was surprising given that the main dividing line within the LDP was thought to be on precisely this issue. Yasuo Fukuda was, until his withdrawal from the race in July, the candidate thought to exemplify a softer, more conciliatory approach. Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister and long-time front-runner in the race, was thought to represent a tougher, more hard-line and nationalist approach, tougher even than Mr Koizumi’s. Yet even Mr Abe claimed to wish to achieve smoother relations with China.

So let us assume that Mr Abe is being sincere when he says that he wants relations with China to improve. THE FACT THAT HE CHOSE TO MAKE HIS FIRST OVERSEAS TRIP AS PRIME MINISTER TO BEIJING SUGGESTS THAT HE DOES MEAN WHAT HE SAYS. What could he actually do to bring this about? How could he make improvements while also standing tall (as he says he wants to) as a proud Japanese?

Here are my thoughts about these questions. They begin with the Yasukuni Shrine. Mr Abe may wish to be ambiguous about Yasukuni, just as he has been during the LDP leadership campaign, supporting the right to pay respects there to the war-dead while avoiding direct answers about whether he will visit in his official capacity as prime minister. But such ambiguity will not be good enough.

The important challenge concerning Yasukuni is the need to separate the issue of the shrine as a memorial to the war-dead from the issue of history itself. Mr Koizumi has argued, perfectly accurately, that it is right and just for a prime minister to pay his respects to those Japanese who have died in war during the past 150 years. But the weakness with this argument is that the shrine is not just a war memorial: it is also a political statement about the interpretation of Japan’s 20th-century history. Its museum, the Yushukan, takes a clear position about that history. The 1978 decision to enshrine the 14 class A war criminals was also a historical statement.

Yasukuni will remain controversial in China and South Korea, and will continue to make Japan look bad to the world, for as long as the shrine continues to combine worship with history. Mr Abe’s plan should be to try to separate those issues. Ideally, he would do this by persuading the Diet to pass a law that takes the Yasukuni Shrine back into government control. This is controversial because the constitution requires religion and the state to be separated. So a law would have to be drafted in such a way as to create an exceptional status for Yasukuni. Then, he should require the Yushukan museum to be moved to another site, physically separate from Yasukuni.

By taking this position, he could say sincerely that he was not attacking the historical view presented by the Yushukan. He would be treating it in the proper democratic way, by allowing it to be one independent voice in a broad debate about history. He could reinforce this position by setting up a special high-level commission to study the issue of history and how it is portrayed in Japan in museums, school textbooks and universities. That commission could conveniently take a long time over its deliberations. If Mr Abe wanted to be really daring, he could invite some Chinese, Korean and American scholars to join the commission.

Dealing with the 14 war criminals is more difficult. On that issue, Mr Abe has been helped by the recent publication of the diaries of Emperor Showa’s former senior aide, proving that the emperor stopped visiting the shrine because of the 14. One way to address this problem would be to establish a special place in the Yasukuni grounds where the 14 could be memorialised. That would helpfully separate them from the other war dead, but in a respectful way.

Having dealt with Yasukuni and thus eased the tensions over history that have been the main source of dispute recently with China and South Korea, Mr Abe should make two further proposals. He should propose the establishment of an international group, under international maritime law, in front of which the three countries could negotiate over their territorial disputes. Secondly, he should propose the establishment of a special regional summit, or special regional organisation, to deal with the environment, covering issues of pollution and global warming. This would need to include other Asian countries too, even as far away as India.

Why? Because these issues are important, but also because they give Japan and its neighbours something definite to talk about. It is easier to get together and become friendly when you have something of mutual interest to discuss. China and South Korea may not agree to these proposals. But by making them, Mr Abe would be able to win support and moral stature in international circles.

Good luck, Mr Abe.


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