Two Votes over Tokyo

Research Fellow Christopher Griffin
Research Fellow
Christopher Griffin
In the next few days, two votes on two continents could bring a wave of change to Japan. Tomorrow in Tokyo an upper-house election of the Japanese Diet will decide the fate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; too great a loss could topple his cabinet. And next week in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on Resolution 121, which calls for the Japanese government to accept full responsibility and apologize for the abuse of sex slaves during World War II.

The outcome of Sunday's election is not much in doubt: Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are set to take a thumping. Abe is widely viewed in Japan as uninterested in managing his government, focusing instead on Japan's aspirations to become a "beautiful country." But Abe's grandiose rhetoric only confuses the public, and a series of scandals culminating in the suicide of a cabinet minister have not helped his popularity.

Even a significant defeat on Sunday, however, may not lead to any major change--because this election will not affect the balance in the all-important lower house. Upper-house elections provide the electorate with a convenient way to chastise the ruling party without overthrowing it. In such a case, the party would maintain control even if it changes its leadership.

Congress can show that it takes the relationship with Japan seriously by working to strengthen the partnership between two of the world's most important democracies.

The main question about Sunday's election is whether Abe will be forced to resign as prime minister. Such an outcome is plausible, if unlikely, and could stall recent efforts at bilateral cooperation with the United States on such issues as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abe has made these issues central to his agenda as prime minister, and no potential successor is as committed to so close a relationship with Washington.

A vote against the LDP, however, is not a vote against the U.S.-Japan alliance. While many within the opposition party leadership may be skeptical of Abe's ambitions, they have chosen to focus their campaign on such social issues as pension reform. So a defeat for Abe does not necessarily mean a repudiation of his agenda of constitutional reform and a stronger defense. And while Abe has made a stronger alliance a priority, both parties seek a healthy relationship with the United States.

While Tokyo prepares for its election, Japanese leaders will also be watching the upcoming vote on H. R. 121, a "sense of Congress" resolution calling on Japan to apologize for its wartime system of sexual slavery. As a sentiment, the resolution is laudable--Japan's wartime activities were in fact atrocious, and Japan's inability to address such historical legacies is a genuine liability for the alliance. As politics, however, the resolution is less than ideal; the timing of its passage has already raised concerns in Tokyo as to the long-term health of bilateral relations.

First introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), the resolution was the topic of hearings on Feb. 15, two days after an agreement among negotiatiors on the North Korean issue pushed aside Japan's concerns about some two dozen Japanese who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Claiming that the agreement leaves the lives of Japanese citizens in peril, Tokyo has shown little patience for lectures on its own human rights record. Japan's ambassador in Washington has warned that passage of the resolution would have "lasting and harmful effects" on the relationship.

The resolution shows that history remains relevant to diplomacy. Getting history right will also be a necessary step if Japan is to play a productive role in Asia. From the Korean Peninsula to Southeast Asia, Japan faces obstacles incurred by its failure to resolve historical disputes, allowing countries such as China to use history as a tool for rallying regional opposition to Tokyo.

Washington and Tokyo face a full agenda. Such issues as the resolution and North Korea are increasingly characterized by contention rather than coordination, and these quarrels hamper progress on such vital issues as missile defense and regional economic cooperation. As the two sides look beyond the current contretemps, Congress can show that it takes the relationship with Japan seriously by working to strengthen the partnership between two of the world's most important democracies.

Christopher Griffin is a research fellow at AEI.

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