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Abe's Holiday Travel -- Deja Vu?
[Analysis] Japan PM's planned tour of Beijing, Seoul raises hopes and concerns
Hisane Masaki (hmasaki)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-06 13:40 (KST)   
For many observers of the Japanese diplomatic scene, it may look like deja vu. Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will make a speedy fence-mending tour of two Asian neighbors soon, just as his predecessor did five years ago. That trip proved later on to be a complete failure. Will the new one be any different?

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The trip will take Abe to Beijing on Sunday for talks with top Chinese leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and then to Seoul for talks with President Roh Moo-hyun the following day, which falls on a national holiday in Japan.

The visits will be Abe's first overseas since he took office on September 26, succeeding Junichiro Koizumi. This underscores the importance Abe, a conservative hawk, attaches to mending the deep rift in political relations with the Asian neighbors -- the negative legacy left by his predecessor -- early in his new administration. It is rare for a Japanese premier to make an overseas trip so soon after being elected.

Japan's relations with China and South Korea have plunged to their lowest points in decades because of Koizumi's repeated visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and other issues stemming from Japan's history of aggression and atrocities against its neighbors. Also, Tokyo is locked in territorial disputes with Beijing and Seoul, and the row over natural-gas reserves in the East China Sea is smoldering between Japan and China.

Koizumi's pilgrimages to the Shinto shrine drew particularly angry protests from China and South Korea as an implicit glorification of Japan's past militarism. The shrine is widely regarded as a symbol of Japan's militarist past, as it honors World War II Class A war criminals among some 2.4 million war dead. China and South Korea had rejected summit talks with Koizumi since last year.

Abe's visit to Beijing will be the first by a Japanese premier since Koizumi went there in October 2001. The summit talks will be the first since April 2005, when Koizumi and Hu met in Jakarta on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa Summit. Abe's meeting with Roh will be the first Japan-South Korea summit since last November, when Koizumi and Roh met in Busan, South Korea on the fringes of an annual meeting of leaders from member nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Abe had instructed the Foreign Ministry to set his tour of Beijing and Seoul before Roh's planned visit to the Chinese capital on Oct. 13. That was apparently because the new Japanese premier wanted to nip in the bud the possibility of Chinese and South Korean leaders publicly showing a unified stance against Japan over the Yasukuni, history-perception, and other issues.

To be sure, Abe's forthcoming tour has raised hopes for a significant improvement in ties. But it has also raised some concerns, because it is reminiscent of Koizumi's trips to the two capitals in October 2001, six months after he took office. In Beijing, Koizumi met with then-leaders president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji. A week later, Koizumi met with South Korea's then-president Kim Dae-jung in Seoul.

Koizumi's 2001 visits were also for fence-mending, amid criticism then of Japan's resurgent militarism. Earlier that year, the Japanese government had approved a history textbook that China and South Korea claimed glossed over Japan's wartime atrocities, and Koizumi had already made his first pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine as premier.

In China, Koizumi laid a wreath at a Chinese war memorial and visited a museum dedicated to China's wartime resistance against Japan. "Looking at this museum, I felt again the horror of war," he told reporters. "I looked at the various exhibits with a feeling of heartfelt apology and condolences for those Chinese people who were victims of aggression. We must not go to war again."

At the time, many people in China and South Korea thought these words showed that Koizumi had repented for his visit to Yasukuni Shrine and that he would not repeat it. But Koizumi continued to worship at the shrine every year. His last shrine visit as premier was on Aug. 15 this year, the anniversary of Japan's 1945 surrender in World War II. As things turned out, the 2001 visits to Beijing and Seoul by Koizumi sowed the seeds of further distrust and conflict.

In the lead-up to his election, Abe was studiously vague on whether he would continue his predecessor's policy of shrine visits. During his upcoming trip, Abe is likely to remain similarly vague on the issue. Abe has also said he will not say whether he has visited the shrine in the past. As Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary, Abe made a secret visit to the shrine in April, although he has refused to confirm it.

China has demanded that Abe pledge not to visit the shrine while in office. But Abe said, "It's important that leaders realize frank talks without attaching conditions." Japanese officials say that in arranging Abe's visit to Beijing, they have not agreed to a Chinese demand for him to pledge not to worship at Yasukuni Shrine during his tenure. If that is true, the question remains: Why has China dropped its condition for accepting Abe's visit?

Some observers point out that it is possible that Japan and China reached some agreement on the Yasukuni issue during prior consultations that satisfied Chinese officials to a certain extent. There is even speculation within the Japanese government that aides to Abe and Chinese officials have reached a secret accord under which Abe will not visit the shrine during his tenure. "China understands that Prime Minister Abe will not visit Yasukuni Shrine while he is in office," a Chinese government source said.

Some observers also say that Tokyo may have already promised that Abe will at least make a statement on the issue during the upcoming summit that will satisfy Beijing. "We each have our previous position, but we need to consider the public sentiment on both sides and work to use our wisdom," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said.

The new Japanese leader's stance on the Yasukuni issue has been criticized even at home. Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, grilled Abe in parliament over his ambiguous stance on the Yasukuni issue. Hatoyama claimed that Abe's "ambiguity strategy will hurt the trust" of China and South Korea and that he would "commit the same error as former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi".

Many observers believe that Abe's visits to Beijing and Seoul will not bring about a dramatic turnaround in Japan's strained ties with them. Rather, they believe the visits will be just a first, albeit significant, step in the process of putting the ties back on a sounder footing. That is because of sharp differences between Abe and Chinese and South Korean leaders over the Yasukuni and history-perception issues.

Abe has declined to clarify his personal views on Japan's wartime responsibility, saying, "Politicians should be modest about analyzing history." He also sidestepped a long-running and sensitive debate within Japan about whether the emperor or executed war criminals led the country into defeat in World War II by saying that it was "not appropriate for the government to determine who exactly was responsible as the national leader for the last war."

At his upcoming summits, Abe is expected to say that he will uphold the government's view on history as presented in prime-ministerial statements that admitted and apologized for Japan's past invasions and colonization. These statements include one issued in 1995 by then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, a socialist, on the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, and another issued in 2005 by Koizumi on the 60th such anniversary.

In his separate talks with Chinese and South Korean leaders, Abe is also expected to propose a resumption of suspended exchanges of visits by them to each other's country. Chinese President Hu said in June that he hopes to visit Japan "at an appropriate time if conditions are met". Abe is likely to agree with Hu and Roh at least to meet again on the sidelines of this year's APEC summit in Hanoi in mid-November.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. This article originally appeared on Crisscross. It is an abbreviated version of an article that originally appeared on Asia Times.

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hisane Masaki

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