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    November 1, 2006
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Temple Japan’s Kingston explains Japan’s place in a volatile region

Jeff Kingston
Jeffrey Kingston (Photo courtesy Temple University Japan)

Last week, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured East Asia to build support for a stand against North Korea’s nuclear program, a strong alliance between the United States and Japan was underscored through joint statements and tough talk from the two countries. In Japan, public opinion is divided. While some support new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move to increase Japan-U.S. cooperation — including in military defense — others seek a more measured stance that might ease Japan’s traditionally strained relationships with neighboring China and South Korea.

“I see Abe deepening the U.S. alliance and pushing for legislation on defense guidelines that will regularize Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ cooperation with U.S. forces,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. “My sense is that Japan’s neighbors find the U.S. alliance reassuring as a constraint on Japan. The U.S. nuclear umbrella helps dampen urges for a nuclear arms race in the region.”

Elected prime minister in August, Abe “catapulted into national prominence for taking a tough position on Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea when much of the establishment was in denial about the issue,” Kingston said, adding, “Everything that Kim Jong-il does vindicates his position.”

Before he was elected, Abe was considered a reformist for advocating a beefed-up security alliance with the United States and calling for revision of Japan’s U.S.-written Constitution — especially the war renouncing, military constraining Article 9 — among other strong positions.  However, Kingston says, “Once PM, many politicians find that the constraints of high office force them to adopt more conciliatory and compromising positions.”

Since taking office, Abe has reiterated a public apology issued by all prime ministers since 1995 concerning Japan’s invasion of Asia during World War II, has accepted the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, has reached out to China to repair the damage to bilateral relations caused by former Prime Minster Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and generally surprised everyone by his moderate positions, Kingston said.

“Kim [Jong-il] did him a favor by pushing history issues off the front burner, where they had been boiling over the past five years, onto the backburners where they can simmer. Now is the honeymoon period … so the key is if Abe can sustain the warming of bilateral relations.”

One sticking point has been the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors those killed in wartime — including 12 Japanese convicted by a post-World War II court of Class A war crimes. So far, Abe has remained ambiguous about whether he will visit the shrine. “He doesn't want to seem like he is kowtowing, but I doubt he will visit while he is PM,” Kingston said.

Jeffrey Kingston, author of Japan's Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st Century (2004), has been quoted about Japan’s position on North Korea’s October nuclear test in articles ranging from Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, CBS and ABC to the Japan Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Inter Press Service News Agency.

Betsy Winter




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