Ahead of his arrival in Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed the U.S.-Japanese alliance as “indispensable” (WashPost). But relations between Tokyo and Washington have shown signs of a chill since Abe came to power in the fall of 2006. Abe lacks the personal connection his charismatic predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had with President Bush, and the two countries appear out of sync in pressuring North Korea to acknowledge responsibility for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens (Reuters) two decades ago. Vice President Dick Cheney said the relationship “has never been stronger” during his February visit to Tokyo. But weeks before Cheney’s arrival, Japanese officials criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq policy (FT), with Taro Aso, the foreign minister, going so far as to call it “naïve.” The alliance was further tested by Abe’s comments denying evidence of Japanese military participation in the sexual enslavement of some 200,000 “comfort women.”
Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe drew international reproach recently for disputing that his country's military coerced young women into sexual enslavement during Japan's occupation of China and the Korean peninsula. The controversy also raised questions about the importance of saying sorry, a gesture that can smooth diplomatic waters but can also open the door to claims for legal compensation. Abe's remarks came shortly after U.S. Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-CA) proposed a bill in January demanding that Tokyo apologize and accept “historical responsibility” for the Japanese military's role in the abuse of “comfort women.” That is the term for the roughly 200,000 mostly Korean and Chinese women pressed into providing sex to Japanese soldiers during wartime.
Shinzo Abe took the helm from Junichiro Koizumi in September as Japanese prime minister during a period of chilling relations with Beijing and Seoul, due to China and South Korea’s memory of brutal Japanese aggression in the region during the decades leading up to Hiroshima. Koizumi's official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors several Class A war criminals along with about 2.5 million war casualties, had revived memories of Japan's World War Two-era brutalities in China and South Korea. In recent months, then–cabinet chief Abe’s emergence as the favored candidate for the premiership by the governing Liberal Democratic Party did little to calm Chinese and South Korean fears. The right-leaning leader has been unapologetic about his country’s history, and he supported the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution. Also, he has not concealed his affection for his deceased grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a Japanese prime minister after the war, in spite of a war crime indictment. But experts say that the North Korean nuclear test announcement, which came within weeks of Abe taking office, presented the three countries with an opportunity to forge common ground in handling the crisis. Abe's first official visits, to Seoul and Beijing, prompted hopes that he would bring a new commitment to improving relations with Japan's important neighbors.
Imperial visits to the controversial Yasukuni memorial stopped almost thirty years ago. A 1988 memorandum, leaked last month, revealed that the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito ended his visits after the enshrinement of war criminals at the memorial in 1978. "That is why I've since stopped visiting. That is how I feel in my heart," said Hirohito (Yomiuri). But the imperial memo hasn't stopped Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from making another annual visit to the shrine (The Age)—which honors 2.5 million war dead along with more than a thousand war criminals—on the August 15 anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender. The visit drew immediate condemnation from China and South Korea (ChiTrib).