Japanese nationalist politicians’ recent remarks and behavior underlining their unwillingness to atone for the country’s wartime crimes are raising the ire of South Korea and China, and posing hurdles to the U.S.’ strategic refocus on the Asia-Pacific.
Experts said Japan’s rightward shift could hamper efforts to ease the confrontational mood stemming from historical and territorial disputes, and multilateral practical cooperation in security, the economy and other areas.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe infuriated the two neighboring states once again this week after he posed for a photo in the cockpit of a warplane with the number 731 written on its body at an Air Self-Defense Forces unit Sunday.
The figure evokes Unit 731, a notorious covert chemical and biological research unit of the Japanese Army that carried out lethal human experiments during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
The incident was followed by controversial remarks by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, a feisty rightwing politician that co-chairs the emerging Japan Restoration Party.
“To maintain discipline in the military, it (Japan’s military’s sexual enslavement) must have been necessary at that time (during World War II),” he said Monday, drawing seething criticism from Seoul and Beijing, the two major victims of Japanese imperialism.
As the wartime sexual enslavement issue is now seen as a broader violation of human rights, a crucial value the U.S. has long trumpeted, such remarks could have serious diplomatic ramifications, Lee Jung-hwan, assistant professor at the School of International and Area Studies of Kookmin University, pointed out.
The hawkish Japanese premier also put the neighboring countries off guard as he sent his close aide, Isao Iijima, to Pyongyang in an apparent effort to address the long-simmering issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the communist regime.
The move triggered concerns that it could hamper ongoing efforts by Seoul, Washington and Beijing to put up a united front and ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang to stop its provocations and come forward as a responsible member of the international community.
Though it is unclear whether Tokyo consulted with Washington over Iijima’s trip to the North, Seoul and Beijing were not informed of the visit that some experts said could play some role in easing the prolonged nuclear stalemate with the North.
For Japan, the abduction issue is a significant domestic political issue that can critically impact voter sentiment. Should the issue be addressed and North Korea-Japan ties be enhanced, Tokyo would also get some strategic leverage over the impoverished state, experts said.
Chung Sung-yoon, professor at Ilmin International Relations Institute of Korea University, said that Japan’s conservative moves posed two major dilemmas for South Korea in terms of their efforts to move the bilateral relationship forward and cooperate to cope with Pyongyang’s nuclear adventurism.
“Some of the major pro-Korea figures in Japanese politics also have different historical interpretations. This is one challenge Seoul faces to move the relationship forward into a future-oriented direction,” he said.
“Secondly, the challenge is in the realm of security cooperation. Emotional responses on both sides as to historical and territorial issues would lead to some cracks in their strategic cooperation to deal with the North.”
But Chung said that the rightward shift by the mainstream politicians was largely driven by domestic political purposes, predicting that the Abe government might seek a turnaround in relations with Seoul and Beijing once his purposes were met, possibly after the upper-house elections slated for July.
“Such worrisome remarks might have been politically driven as their elections are coming up and they seek to strengthen their support base, and for other domestic reasons,” he said.
“The U.S. has both directly and indirectly sent warnings to Japan and should it be nearing some sort of the redline, Washington might step in to rein it in.”
Japan’s recent moves that further exacerbated historical animosity between the country and South Korea and China have also triggered concerns for Washington. The U.S. has been striving to maintain regional preponderance based on multilateral cooperation amid the rise of China.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com