The real story behind Shinzo Abe's visit: China, TPP and what the media won't tell you about this state visit

We witness reordination of a relationship between the U.S. and Japan that should have died a bad death decades ago

Published April 30, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe             (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

The grande fête Washington has laid on all week for Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, is very unusual on the face of it. When a head of state spends this much time in another nation’s capital, you know significant doings are afoot.

And they are. In agreements reached as soon as they met Monday, Abe and President Obama have taken defense ties to an intimacy unprecedented in history. As it stands now, this breaches Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, the “no-war” clause barring Japan from military activities other than those in direct defense of its shores.

On the White House steps Tuesday, Abe confirmed his conscription as a commissioned officer in Washington’s campaign to get its ambitious trade pact, the corporate-drafted Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed this year. “We will continue to cooperate to lead the TPP talks through their last phase,” Abe said in one of those side-by-side tableaux commonly staged for the press and the television cameras.

Less practically but more momentously, we have Abe’s Wednesday address to a joint session of Congress, wherein 535 American legislators implicitly certified Abe and the rightist factions in his Liberal Democratic Party in their efforts to get past questions of guilt and responsibility in the Pacific War (as Asians call World War II and the decade of aggression that preceded it) without honestly addressing them.

Pretty extensive agenda. These people have been walking and chewing gum all over Washington since Abe’s arrival. But there is a remarkable coherence to all Abe and the Obama administration are getting done. The next paragraph is a fulsome description of what I think this week is all about.


You will hear 55 times over the next little while that, no, the escalation of defense ties has nothing to do with containing the mainland. And no, the TPP may happen to exclude China but is not intended to exclude China.

Take none of these protests seriously. The extension of NATO eastward has nothing to do with Russia, either. Sanctions imposed since the Ukraine crisis erupted last year have nothing to do with disrupting the economic interdependence that has developed between the European Union and post-Soviet Russia, either.

As to questions of history, implicitly absolving Shinzo Abe’s version of Japan is simply the right thing to do and has nothing to do with Tokyo’s increasing isolation from American allies and adversaries alike around the region.

Let me have another try at summarizing this week’s events in Washington.

What we witness is the re-ordination of a relationship between the U.S. and Japan that should have died a bad death decades ago. It represents the quintessential Cold War subordination of democratic process to Washington’s idea of great-power rivalry. It prolongs what is known among Japanists as a “culture of irresponsibility” among Japan’s right and extreme-right political factions. And it has suffocated the Japanese electorate for 70 years.

This is new thinking? This is the fruit of some clever “pivot to Asia”? It is as moldy as the old boots left in the barn, in my view. As to the vaunted pivot, one of Hillary Clinton’s inventions when she was secretary of state, it has been fraudulent from the first. How does one return to a region one has never left?

Washington has never been able to distinguish between being a Pacific power, which it is, and being an Asian power, which it cannot be by definition.

This is the core of our problem across the left-hand ocean. In effect, Abe’s visit prolongs it because it marks the institutional extension of Cold War II into Asia.

Apart from the duration of Abe’s stay, one feature of his visit strikes me as the clue to the whole. This is the address to Congress on Wednesday, and it is unusual to contemplate.

The first foreign leader to speak before both houses was Churchill, in 1941. From then until now, these occasions have a certain totemic aspect: They betoken a privileged closeness at moments of great import.

No Japanese leader, despite seven decades of faithful if unbecoming servitude since the defeat in 1945, has ever been extended the honor. One Japanese premier did address the Senate. This was Nobusuke Kiishi, who went to Washington in 1960, as the security treaty first signed in 1952 was coming up for renewal.

There are a few things to note about Kiishi. He officiated during Japan’s brutal pacification of Manchuria in the 1930s, served as minister of munitions during World War II, and was charged in 1945 as a Class A war criminal, an international designation for those who planned and initiated war crimes as opposed to simply executing them.

Kiishi was released without trial in 1948, not because he was innocent but because Washington was just then “reversing course” in Japan—that is, determining that the Cold War took precedence over matters such as justice. With his election in 1957, Japan had a war criminal in the prime minister’s office; Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers could hardly get enough of this bribery-prone murderer.

Kiishi’s key moment came in the spring of 1960. The Japanese public and much of the Diet were in an uproar over a new security treaty with Washington, known as ANPO; Kiishi had already signed it but still needed parliamentary ratification. Late in the evening of May 19, Kiishi had opposing Diet members forcibly removed from the legislative chamber and rammed through a favorable vote on ANPO with the minority that supported it.

I have always put this among the crystallizing moments of the postwar relationship between Washington and Tokyo. The subversion of democratic process has been essential to maintaining Japan’s place in the Cold War’s Pacific theater most of the time since that evening.

One other thing you need to know about Kiishi: He is Shinzo Abe’s grandfather. And let there be no question: Abe honors the impeccable bloodlines, an extreme-right nationalist in all he does.

Now you see what is strange about Abe’s tour in Washington this week. It is a weirdly precise echo of Grandpa’s 55 years earlier. Half a century apart, a Japanese premier receives America’s benediction for policies that 1) contradict the wishes of the electorate and 2) therefore require the subversion of democratic process, the very thing American leaders claim as the intent of foreign policy

Half a century apart—and do not miss this as our media purvey the official line—the image of an objectionable ally participating in a destructive Pacific strategy is spruced up such that Americans are settled as to the propriety of their support.

Kiishi’s case, as just outlined, is open and shut in this connection. Before he got to Washington to sign the security treaty in 1960, the State Department arranged for him to throw out the first baseball at Yankee Stadium that season. Just a regular guy—except that he had to resign a month after ANPO became law, so uncontrollable had demonstrations around Japan become. His job was done, though he remained a backroom manipulator in the immensely corrupted LDP almost until he died at 90 in 1987.

As to Abe, let’s take the occasion to deconstruct these various deals he is cutting with the Obama administration.

• On the defense side, Abe’s new accord with Washington marks the most significant change in the security relationship since Kiishi’s connivances. There is nothing new in Secretary of State Kerry’s reiteration of America’s “ironclad” commitment to protecting Japan. This is the postwar idea in a single phrase: Japan is a protectorate and will remain one.

Where Kerry broke very new ground is in extending this concept to the disputed islands Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus. This is astonishingly indelicate, to put the point mildly—an open affront to Beijing. Until this week Washington recognized the dispute, not either side’s sovereignty. That was correct. My interpretation: Abe, a vigorous hawk on the islands question, horse-traded something Washington dearly wants in exchange for its endorsement of Tokyo’s territorial claim.

What Washington dearly wanted and now has is a commitment from Tokyo to deploy its military anywhere America or any American ally comes under threat. This, of course, means more or less anywhere we can think of.

This is big for two reasons.

One, it opens Asia to the projection of Japanese power for the first time since 1945. Will Japanese forces deploy next time things get hot with North Korea? What if something unexpected and untoward happens in the Taiwan Strait? Have we just been told that Washington will go to war with China if the islands dispute breaks into open conflict, as it easily could?

These are new, unwelcome questions. China will object loudly to the new accord and, in my judgment, American allies such as South Korea may prove unready for it.

Two, the agreement is unconstitutional. Here things get a little complicated.

American lawyers wrote Japan’s “peace constitution” and handed it to them in 1947. But note the date. Truman started the Cold War the same year, and the Occupation promptly began reversing course. Washington has since spent a lot of time and effort supporting LDP efforts to bend, violate or rewrite the law it gave them. This is the core contradiction in a relationship beset with many, and it is now on full display in Washington.

It may seem odd that nationalists such as Abe favor closer relations with the U.S. given the sacrifice of sovereignty these ties entail, but this is why: Washington supports the remilitarization the LDP has also long favored. The majority of the Japanese, meantime, are as restless with the security relationship now, if not as animated, as they were when Kiishi forced it upon their grandparents.

Abe has never been content with blurring the constitution’s restrictions with peculiar legal interpretations, as numerous of his predecessors were. From his first day in office he has sought to scrap the 1947 constitution outright, so abolishing a 68-year tradition of pacifism that the vast majority of Japanese consider close to a national treasure.

In net terms, Washington now backs—officially and overtly for the first time—this long-running effort. It has no business whatsoever doing so, but, then, it has never displayed much regard for the Japanese electorate.

If Abe’s agreement this week is effectively unlawful under the constitution as it now stands, so was Grandpa’s in 1960. Abe has no plans, surely, to send goons into the Diet when votes on the constitutional question come up. But as numerous reports tell us, he has opened an unprecedented campaign to silence criticism in domestic media. As Martin Fackler, the Times’ able Tokyo correspondent put it just before Abe set out for Washington, the intent is “to make it easier for the government to make big changes that might not enjoy broad popular support, like amending the pacifist constitution.”

Like grandfather, like grandson. Like Cold War I, like Cold War II: Sometimes, as in most of the time, democracy simply will not do.

My views on the constitutional question are not everybody’s, and readers can take or leave them as they like. I have held since serving as a correspondent in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s that the Japanese should indeed rescind the 1947 document if only to replace it with a replica that includes the same no-war clause. It is essential that they live by laws of their own making.

Abe is correct in asserting that Japan must articulate itself anew. Its people have been “post-postwar” in their thinking for decades. But he is dead wrong in his argument that this translates into an aggressively nationalist posture. The majority of Japanese think entirely otherwise. The U.S. should be encouraging national debate, not lining up with a premier intent on extinguishing it.

Conclusion on the new defense accord: A mistake in that it stiffens the Japanese right’s resolve to face off with China, and a mistake of equal magnitude in that it once again promises to warp the Japanese political process.

* It starts to look as if the TPP accord may be destined for a kind of quiet, over-in-the-corner failure. I hope so, given its perverse worship of market value as the only value and its corresponding intent to destroy—disrupt, I guess we are saying now—all value vested in community, locality, and shared traditions and histories.

When Abe and Obama emerged from the trade portion of their encounter Tuesday it was clear they had gotten precisely nothing done. Abe did not budge even on Japan’s tariffs on autos and farm goods—decades-old trade issues that Obama was supposed to sweep up neatly in preparation for the big banana. This says a lot, in my view.

My conclusions on the TPP’s prospects in Japan—and by extension elsewhere—are several.

One, Abe will have a tough time—however sincere or halfhearted his effort, and this is a question—getting the TPP past domestic constituencies. The pact hits too many vested political interests, and the Japanese value too highly the intense localism embedded in their system and way of life.

They are not, at heart, neoliberals. When the first Japanese to visit the U.S. arrived in the early 1870s, they called raw American capitalism “warfare in peacetime.” Much has since changed, but not everything.

Two, if the TPP passes in Japan it will require—per usual when Tokyo deals with Washington—corrupting the political process to one extent or another. Assuming it passes, I suspect many of its terms will sit there, as inert as potatoes, unobserved other than in form. The Japanese are very good at this kind of thing. “Let the foreigner in so as to keep him out,” is the old expression.

Three, the talks with Abe have drawn Obama further out of the closet as to the anti-Chinese aspect of the accord. “If we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region,” the president said in a Wall Street Journal interview just before Abe’s arrival.

This is another of Obama’s appalling mistakes in his dealings across the Pacific. The TPP’s exclusion of the mainland is pointed, as is its purpose as an instrument in Washington’s undeclared war for primacy in the Pacific. This is wrong already.

What is the point, then, of pushing these realities in Beijing’s face? You would think Washington would have learned something from its pouting and fruitless opposition after China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a rival of the IMF and the World Bank, last autumn. Not a chance.

It is too soon to predict the TPP’s fortunes. But among many possible outcomes, one is that a too-ambitious trade pact, written by tone-deaf neoliberals and corporate attorneys representing the industries to benefit most, will prove ineffectual except insofar as it further alienates China and defers a sturdy settlement among Asian neighbors.

• As to Abe’s address to Congress, we knew this occasion’s choreography well beforehand. As anticipated, he professed to stand by apologies extended by previous leaders. “Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries,” Abe said in English. “We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by previous prime ministers in this regard.”

Abe spoke in code. The most authentic apology Japan has ever offered for its wartime conduct was rendered by Tomiichi Murayama, a Socialist, on the 50th anniversary of the surrender in 1995. I have always considered this Japan’s equivalent to Willy Brandt’s genuflection in Warsaw in 1970. The right words were said at last.

O.K., Abe endorsed what is known as the Murayama Statement without actually mentioning it. Equally, he apologized while stopping short of the word “apology.” He never used it.

It is a pastime among Asians, especially Chinese and South Koreans, to parse the utterances of Japanese premiers on the topic of war guilt. I have long considered this an idle waste of time, especially since the Murayama Statement. One watches what Japanese leaders do, as against say.

In the category of “do”: Have the history texts been cleaned up and the Education Ministry, an infamous nest of unreconstructed ultranationalists, been cleaned out? Has Tokyo settled up its liabilities on the question of comfort women? Has it built the memorial monuments Germany has, in number and kind? Does the ethos prevalent in leadership circles express or contradict the electorate’s on the wartime question?

Neither Abe nor any other recent prime minister, with the exception of Murayama, has had good answers to these questions. Abe is not even looking for them. And here we come to the culture of irresponsibility noted earlier.

Among the many mistakes made during the American Occupation, the most fateful was excusing the emperor of responsibility in planning and prosecuting the war. Hirohito was up to his field marshal’s jodhpurs in guilt—Herbert Bix’s “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” published in 2001, established this definitively. But MacArthur’s judgment, endorsed in Washington, was that Japan would lapse into ungovernable chaos if he were charged and tried.

It would not have. The Japanese were eager to acquire the habits of democratic government. And among the unforeseen consequence has been 70 years’ worth of leaders who think they can continue to partake of the emperor’s unaccountability. Nobusuke Kiichi was, of course, a prime beneficiary. So is the grandson now.

To me, the most interesting features of Abe’s appearance before Congress were the repeated standing ovations.

Twenty-five House Republicans had already written Abe’s ambassador in Washington urging the premier to say the right things, at least to some passable minimum. Both houses then applauded with enthusiasm because they want to clean up this guy’s image just as Eisenhower and Dulles needed to spray-paint Grandpa to make a war criminal look a little more appealing. Enlisting Japan in Cold War II is just as big a job as Kiichi’s, after all.

We are supposed to take Abe’s visit to Washington as a measure of Obama’s pivot to Asia. But this is evidence of the opposite. This is two governments standing still, locked in a 70-year embrace that has nothing to say to the 21st century.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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