Things don’t always go to plan. In the past week Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems haunted by Murphy’s Law — if it can go wrong it will.
What was supposed to be a grand opportunity to strut on the international stage with world leaders gathered for the G7 Ise-Shima Summit and then make a pilgrimage with President Barack Obama to Hiroshima seems to be straying from the script.
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama will be the first incumbent president to visit the site of the first atomic bombing, and his arrival on Abe’s watch was supposed to burnish the Japanese leader’s credentials as a statesman.
The plan was to boost Abe’s stature in the run up to elections for the Upper House of the Diet — and possibly a double snap election for the lower house as he gears up to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.
But then it emerged that a civilian U.S. military base worker in Okinawa had admitted to dumping the body a 20-year old local woman, igniting a firestorm of outrage and protests across the prefecture that hosts 74% of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Okinawans have long resented shouldering what they consider to be a disproportionate burden of hosting the American military, an issue that has resonated powerfully among Okinawans since the 1995 rape of a 12-year old schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen. A cascade of petty crimes and periodic crimes of sexual violence against islanders, exasperate locals and stoke anti-base sentiments.
This surge in anti-U.S. base protests at the time of Obama’s visit is very awkward for Abe personally and for alliance managers, looming over the G7 Summit and distracting attention from Obama’s historic visit.
Abe voiced anger at the alleged murder — for which Obama expressed his “sincerest condolences and deepest regrets” — but for some his outrage has rings hollow.
Abe is closely associated with strengthening the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Last year he signed new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines that expand what Japan is prepared to do militarily in support of the U.S., and has been a key actor in ongoing efforts to build a new airbase for the U.S. in Okinawa that locals overwhelmingly oppose.
The G7 has also not gone well as finance ministers did not line up behind Abe’s proposal for collective fiscal stimulus and the U.S. warned Japan off its plans to lower the value of the yen.
G7 leaders are also disappointed with Japan’s cipher-like role in the refugee crisis. Last year at the U.N. General Assembly, Abe fobbed off questions about what Japan would do to help out by saying it was more important to address domestic economic problems such as promoting women and elderly in the workforce than assist refugees.
Tokyo has been ready to disburse money to other countries hosting refugees — $810 million in 2015 and $350 million in 2016 and is a leading donor to the UNHCR— reinforcing its reputation for checkbook diplomacy, while letting other nations do the heavy lifting.
There has been some suspicion that Abe would reap political benefits from Obama’s Hiroshima visit, but that is uncertain. Clearly the vast majority of Japanese welcome Obama’s symbolic gesture at Hiroshima, even though he has made clear that he will not offer an apology. He has indicated, however, that he will take moral responsibility for the killing of innocent civilians.
Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his Prague speech laying out his vision for a nuclear free world. He seeks to give momentum to his retirement agenda on non-proliferation and disarmament by reminding everyone what is at stake, as is vividly and excruciatingly on display in Hiroshima. Where better to find inspiration for his quest?
Obama’s reconciliation diplomacy — stretching from Tehran to Havana where he restored relations and to Hanoi where he sparked Obama-mania in a nation once devastated by American military aggression — offers a stark contrast to Abe’s feeble attempts at fence mending over Japan’s wartime aggression.
For Obama, Hiroshima represents the unfinished business of WWII on the long road from foe to friend, apparently a bridge too far for Abe who is known for his revisionist views on Japan’s shared history with Asia and efforts to rehabilitate this shabby era by promoting an exculpatory and valorizing view in textbooks and speeches that riles the neighbors.
Clearly, Obama has often prodded Abe beyond his comfort zone on history issues. Abe was surprised at Washington’s swift and sharp rebuke for his 2013 visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
Obama has also forced Abe to publicly declare his support for the 1993 Kono Statement acknowledging state responsibility for coercive recruitment of comfort women, and prodded Seoul and Tokyo to overcome the comfort women issue at the end of 2015.
So Obama has been a thorn in Abe’s side on history and this makes it difficult for Abe’s spin-doctors.
Wednesday night on the national evening news, the G7 summit shared the spotlight with Okinawan anti-base protests and Abe’s tense faceoff with Obama over the alleged murder. This was not the plan.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan and author of Nationalism in Asia Since 1945. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.