Shinzo Abe, a well-connected, dapper politician of the highest pedigree, is all but certain to take the helm as Japan’s Prime Minister upon the retirement of Junichiro Koizumi, says Reuters. Abe’s credentials are strong with ruling conservatives, nationalists, and, most importantly, voters. His unquestioned reputation as a hawk was developed amidst North Korea’s abduction of a handful of Japanese nationals, to which North Korean President Kim Jong-Il admitted in 2002. Abe’s furious reaction to the admission, and subsequent efforts to repatriate the five surviving abductees, captured the Japanese public's attention. This saga built Abe’s domestic credentials as a leader that could keep Japan safe in a world where multipolarity is apparently replacing American hegemony.
The shift to a multipolar world permits uncertainty a much greater role in international affairs. East Asia is not immune to this tidal wave of potential discord. China’s widely heralded rise as an economic power is tipping the previous balance in the region. Japan’s rocky relationship with its aspiring neighbor, as well as nearby South Korea, suffers from differences in opinion of Japanese atrocities in China and Korea during World War II. In short, Japan wishes China and South Korea to let bygones be bygones, while China and South Korea view this treatment of history as flippant, even accusing Japan of celebrating its imperial past at the Yasukuni shrine.
Yasukuni honors the Japanese who gave their lives for their homeland from the birth of Japan as a modern nation-state (dated 1868,) to Japan’s surrender to allied forces on August 15th 1945. Amongst those buried at Yasukuni are several war criminals convicted by the allied Tokyo tribunal of “crimes against peace”. The shrine also houses a museum glorifying Japan's militarism of yore.
Current Prime Minister Koizumi has seriously offended many Chinese and South Korean nationals by fulfilling his 2001 campaign promise to visit the shrine annually. His most recent visit, on the 51st anniversary of Japan’s WWII, inspired South Korea’s government to be “deeply disappointed and angered” according to an official press release, remarking that “such a chauvinistic attitude has worsened relations between South Korea and Japan”. As Koizumi’s presumed successor, Abe inherits this fallout.
The Economist argues that Abe may not be susceptible to the domestic political forces that required Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni. In an August 15th, 2006 article [sorry—subscribers only], the venerable magazine noted:
What matters is the approach his presumed successor, Shinzo Abe, takes towards Yasukuni. Mr Abe’s right-wing credentials are not in doubt. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, himself an accused war criminal, later became a conservative prime minister. A regular visitor at Yasukuni on August 15th, Mr Abe has even questioned the Tokyo tribunal’s legitimacy. He has no need to prove himself, as did Mr Koizumi, to Japan’s nationalists.
Mr Abe also acknowledges the pressing need for Japan to improve ties with China. A beginning could be made by keeping away from Yasukuni. And perhaps the late Showa emperor, known until his death in 1989 as Hirohito, has given him a break. Last month the diaries were leaked of a former head chamberlain of the imperial palace. They record conversations in which the emperor supposedly said that he had stopped going to Yasukuni because of the war criminals enshrined there in 1978. More than half of those recently polled said they oppose a visit to the shrine by the next prime minister, the first time a majority has been against a national leader going.
Perhaps as a hint at Japan’s turning over a new leaf, the current government is signaling its intent to become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). According to The Daily Yomiuri, Japan is pushing for ratification of the treaty, as a prerequisite to joining next summer. Though historically supportive of the ICC, Japan balked at the large fees required for membership, in light of American abstention. But, The Daily Yomiuri reports, Japan’s “Foreign Ministry has earmarked 1.98 billion yen [$16.9m] as contributions to the ICC in its budget request for fiscal 2007.” Opinio Juris calls this “great news for the ICC”, saying,
Japan’s membership would significantly increase the prestige of the [ICC] and encourage other countries in Asia—currently the most under-represented region—to do likewise.
The ICC seems to be on something of a roll. Court insiders at the international criminal law conference that [Opinio Juris' Kevin Jon Heller] attended in Christcurch said that China is seriously considering becoming a member in the next couple of years and that India may not be far behind.
Perhaps China’s potential ratification of the ICC would be intended, at least in part, to keep the moral high ground against Japan. If so, the paradoxical result is that regional strife is actually expanding the reach of international criminal law, rather than testing that reach. In any case, this will not be the last move in the competition between Japan and its neighbors to advocate their tellings of history. Japan's virtually imminent election of a Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister introduces a volatile ingredient that may actually secure stability.