The Case of Japan under Abe Shinzo

Consider the paradox of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who presented himself as the Japanese leader most committed to pursuing value-laden issues, becoming touted by 2019 as the one world leader in the caldron of Northeast Asia eschewing such issues for pragmatic pursuit of the national interest. Whether dealing with the leader of the United States, China, or Russia, Abe has established himself as the grown-up in the room without renouncing the symbols of his long-time values orientation. He has prioritized diplomacy, catered to the emotional whims of other leaders, and offered deals conducive to forward-leaning relations. Even in his handling of South Korea since the end of 2015, Abe has gained the upper hand as the pragmatist, showing less concern for identity issues. Yet, the recent, rapid deterioration of Japan-ROK relations and the perilous nature of Japan-US ties in light of Trump’s obsession about their unfairness raise questions about how Abe will continue to manage the nexus between interests and values in the difficult environment Japan now faces. Abe is bound to be tested anew in these conditions.

Abe has reinvented himself as a pragmatist, intent on forging better relations with leaders regardless of their reputation, without renouncing his past as an ideologue, who has built his career on such emotional issues as the Japanese abductees assumed to still be in North Korea and the return of the Northern Territories. In 2012-14, when he had newly assumed the top post for a second time, his ideological side appeared to be in the forefront. More recently, as he edges toward the longest total tenure for a Japanese prime minister, the pragmatic side has garnered most attention. Pursuit of the national interest often is associated with pragmatism, compromising in the process to maximize results. In contrast, support for values is associated either with ideology narrowly rooted in distinct national identity themes or universal values shared with the “international community” often at odds with such identity appeals. Abe has sought to bridge the two types of values. Straddling the divide between interests and values, he has built a legacy in a daunting regional environment, which poses a real challenge for analysis. Yet, increasingly, his record as prime minister leans decisively to the side of national interests.1

Abe has a knack for linking strategic priorities to one or both sets of values, often shifting the emphasis while sticking to his policy direction. On his pursuit of Russia, the initial goal seemed to be fulfillment of the long-cherished dream of recovering the Northern Territories. Gradually, however, that shifted to a secondary objective with more room for compromise, as the central aim was recast as limiting Russia’s tilt toward China in an alliance deemed devastating to Japan. On North Korea, Abe became personally identified with the quest to resolve the abductee issue, as he became known for demanding steadfastness on the international sanctions cornering that country. Left on the margins of diplomacy, he had no need to weigh the alternatives. On China, Abe straddled between championing the universalist initiative he introduced, a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” targeted at constraining China’s hegemonic ambitions to the south, while seeking more cooperative economic relations and even agreeing to coordinate on China’s Belt and Road Initiative despite the fact that FOIP and BRI are competing organizational and ideational notions.

Of all of Abe’s challenges in combining interests and values, none has aroused such perplexity as his management of the relationship with South Korea, whether under conservative or, lately, progressive leadership. Historical memory, as in the “comfort women” issue, universal values, national defense, and liberal economic interests all figure into calculations about a relationship steeped in triangularity with the United States, North Korea, and China. It is worth paying close attention to this case as we try to decipher the balance of interests and values in Abe’s choices. Yet, Japanese media insist that Abe put aside his insistence on renouncing the Kono Statement, reassuring to Seoul and long a target of historical revisionists, and cut a pragmatic deal on the “comfort women” issue, preparing to concentrate solely on a forward-looking relationship.

Ties to the United States have not been linked to historical thinking about WWII, as seen in Abe’s embrace of Obama at Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, and Abe’s willingness to find a way to accommodate Trump has been striking, even at obvious risk to the dignity a champion of his nation’s values might be expected to cherish. Abe recommended Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for Trump’s outreach to Kim Jong-un, despite the fact this clashed with Abe’s appeals. To keep Japan-US relations on an even keel has taken precedence over any identity objectives.

It would be a mistake to concentrate entirely on Abe the statesman minimizing risk at a time it has been growing exponentially—a regional arms race, polarization of the leading powers, the targeting of Japan by a progressive leader in South Korea, the rapid rise of an aspiring regional hegemon with a vindictive streak toward Japan, and economic protectionism—when Abe the booster of national identity remains in the picture. In dealing with each bilateral relationship, we need to keep identity management in mind as we elucidate how interests are now pursued.

Interests and values in Japanese foreign policy prior to Abe

Pursuit of national interests can mean prioritizing economic development, partnering with countries to maximize national defense, setting aside national identity appeals in order to reach bilateral agreements, and adopting national policies to facilitate cooperation with other states where opportunities exist. In the Cold War era, Japan earned the reputation of a pragmatic state obsessed with economic growth and with maintaining close ties to the United States to minimize defense expenses and ensure national security. In reaching the final stage of the Cold War with a remarkable record of economic success through foreign trade and with the closest alliance relationship yet achieved, Japan successfully navigated four decades of challenges due to wartime memories, Cold War tensions, and sometimes difficult trade disputes with the US. If national identity themes were on the rise in the 1980s, as confidence levels reflected the hubris of the “bubble economy,” the fact that they limited initiatives—cutting a deal with Gorbachev, anticipating the challenges of a democratizing South Korea, and nipping rising distrust in the US over trade and “Asian values” in the bud—did not mean that pragmatism was not still in control.

Reaching postwar settlements with Southeast Asian states from the 1950s, South Korea in 1965, and China in 1972 and 1978, Japan cut deals reflecting a will to compromise while dangling the benefits of economic cooperation before its partners to entice them to eschew war reparations.  In 1956 it agreed on diplomatic normalization with the Soviet Union, although a peace treaty agreement was not reached. In 2002 a summit in Pyongyang sought normalization, but that was abortive. While national identity barriers figured into diplomacy on both occasions, the legacy of seeking a deal for reasons of national interest was revived. Abe has not forsaken the national identity issues at stake—indeed he has played a large role in stoking them—but he has given the impression that he could compromise on them given clear signs interests would be served.

The key national interest in the Cold War era was boosting exports. Since the 2000s, the goal of national security against growing threats has risen to the forefront. By the 1960s the US nuclear umbrella against the Soviet threat gained prominence. In the post-Cold War era China looms as the primary threat, while North Korea poses a growing threat too, and Russia is potentially one as well. As protectionism has spread of late, there is more awareness of a national interest in countering it. Reliant on sea lanes and keen on preventing isolation in its region, Japan views its ties with some neighboring areas as also vital for avoiding a sharp blow to its national interests.

Waiting in the wings in Japan were boosters of national identity values skeptical of universal values but often aware of the danger of isolation in the face of Asian leaders ready to pounce on Japan for historical revisionism and of the necessity of not opening a wide value gap with the United States. They saw at least three opportunities from the 1980s to cast caution aside to at least some degree. In the 1980s they grew bolder due to confidence in Japan’s economic and management model, allowing a spike in national identity to steer discussion to unique values superior to universal ones, whether Nihonjinron rooted solely in Japan’s distinct history focused on different human nature and social norms at home, or Asian values with Japan leading the way in the emerging “Asian century,” while distancing itself from the excessive individualism, litigiousness, and export of human rights and democracy to Asian states. A decade later, there was hope for Asian regionalism, forging a community not just under the rubric of globalization but capable of capitalizing on the burst of dynamism and intra-regional economic integration in an area Japan anticipated it could lead despite new awareness that a big US role is needed for balancing China. The legacy of this was embraced by the opposition DPJ in 2009-10, with less regard for both historical revisionism and the US reaction. Finally, as the LDP fully regained its footing, the idea that the US was wounded after the world financial crisis in 2008 and required Japan more due to challenges from China and even North Korea, emboldened optimism about expressing long-suppressed, Japanese values regardless of their ties to universal values. Thus, Abe came to power in 2012 with the expectation that he could give fuller reign to values both challenging Chinese and South Korean views of history and defiant of US regional priorities.

Overview of the Abe era

Values have a dual meaning for Japan. On the one hand, there has been a running battle at home between progressive groups with a pacifist inclination, insisting on interpreting defeat in 1945 as a repudiation of historical hubris, and conservative groups raising the banner of a “normal Japan,” pursuing a revisionist line mostly positive about Japan’s history to 1945. This is the values struggle into which Abe has actively entered. On the other hand, Japanese perceive universal values associated with the US-led liberal international order as important for foreign policy success, especially with its ally and with countries in the Indo-Pacific region whose ties matter, but they have been inclined to put limits on how strongly to press for them. Thus, there has not been one type of values diplomacy behind which Japanese have rallied. Abe has tried to rally the country behind a mix of values, overcoming the divides present since the Cold War era.

Abe’s realist priorities have earned him a reputation as the most interest-oriented leader Japan has had since at least Yoshida Shigeru in the first decade of the postwar era. The case for this rests on approaches taken to many questions facing Japan, which might be viewed as national identity challenges. In strengthening relations with the United States, he has visited Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor with President Barack Obama, hidden any anguish over President Donald Trump’s “America First” in searching for common ground on all differences and deferring to the extent that he recommended Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for wooing Kim Jong-un in a manner contrary to Abe’s advice, and never raised sensitive, bilateral historical issues despite Abe’s well-known desire for historical revisionism on WWII implicating the US. On Japan’s most important bilateral relationship, values have been energetically invoked in support of closer ties rooted in national interests, not as an obstacle to closer alliance ties.

Abe’s advocacy of values has not disappeared. His reputation, early visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and framing of bilateral issues has kept his reputation as a champion of narrow national values alive. He compromises without relinquishing the symbols of his past boosterism. This requires treading a narrow line, as in the Abe Statement of August 2015, on the critical occasion of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WWII and loss of its empire in Asia. The US audience was mostly satisfied, the Chinese audience found few grounds for renewed anger, and there were few signs of concessions to Korean thinking, which satisfied Japanese hardliners even if it did nothing to advance reconciliation. Quickly overcoming that hurdle, at a time of sustained US pressure on Seoul to find a way to stop hammering Japan on the “comfort women” issue, Abe just four months later cut a deal on this sensitive issue without alienating his fervent followers.   

In the Trump era, Abe has skillfully worn the mantle of champion of universal values—taking charge of TPP as TPP-2 when Trump pulled out of the agreement, pressing for FOIP when US advocacy of values such as free and open appeared in doubt until Trump seconded the notion, standing for multilateralism and free trade against a rising tide of protectionism driven by the US president, and leaving little distance between Japan and US security experts on vigilance against regional threats whether Trump takes the lead or appears to undercut these causes. In light of longstanding doubts about Japan’s commitment to collective defense, universal values, and market opening, these images conveyed by Abe have caused a remarkable change of image.

Of all the cases where Abe is pursuing personal diplomacy testing the limits of values, those of Russia, the United States, and South Korea stand out. For Russia, Abe must weigh the identity issue of the Northern Territories versus national interests in the face of China’s rise. For the United States, Abe must decide how fully to side with US advocacy of universal values at a time of fear that “America First” is blurring US commitment to universal values. Finally, for South Korea, the tenure of Moon Jae-in has put new stress on how to manage relations, combining historical revisionism and universal values on one side, and bilateral or multilateral interests on the other. Japanese overreaction is possible, demonizing South Korea, rekindling “hate Korea” thinking, demanding retaliation in economic pullouts and decoupling, and showing no understanding for the other side. Having looked at Abe’s Russia policy in earlier issues of The Asan Forum, I omit it in this piece.

The case of the US

Never have values been heralded as uniting Tokyo and Washington as much as is occurring lately. In the Cold War era the pacifist current in Japan left a value gap difficult to bridge. In the 1980s Japan’s spike in national identity led to distancing from the US, which, in turn, saw Japan as more of a rival. Despite protestations of a strong alliance for the post-Cold War environment, the 1990s and even the 2000s—despite Koizumi’s wooing of George W. Bush—differences over regionalism kept recurring, culminating in Hatoyama’s idea of an “East Asian community.” Abe cleared away the vestiges of pacifism, the idealism of regionalism, and the hesitation about universal values. He did so with clearer support for national interests rooted in security concerns.

Abe’s April 26-27 visit to Washington came at a testy time for the US-Japan relationship. More emboldened after some hesitation in his first two years as president, Trump is targeting Japan as well as others—allies not excluded—over trade deficits, defense budgets and host-nation support, and deficiencies in support for US unilateral actions around the world. Faced with pressure over Japan’s purchase of Iranian oil as Trump is imposing sanctions on all importing countries, Abe is being pressed to yield quickly without any say in the matter. Even as he gives Trump the honor of the first state visit with Naruhito, after he becomes emperor, Trump threatens to turn the visit in late May into a debacle for Abe, by pressing for completion of the just-launched bilateral trade talks by that date and demanding Japanese concessions on agricultural imports or other sensitive issues, which could undermine public support for Abe just prior to the summer Upper House elections. In the background, as Abe tours member states in preparation for a successful June G20 summit in Osaka, is the worry that Trump will skip the gathering, showing his defiance for multilateralism just as Abe is keen on making this a showcase for Japan’s internationalism.

Golfing with Trump and celebrating with his wife the birthday of Melania Trump, Abe is seeking to wrap his relationship with Trump in a mantle of closeness steeped in shared values as well as national interests. Yet, value themes are stunningly absent in Trump summits, and the inequality of a relationship based on repeatedly curing favor with Trump is unmistakable. Reciprocity is not showcased, but rather Abe caving on Trump’s demands: How much added spending on US arms is coming? Will Japanese auto companies build new factories in the US? How strongly will Abe endorse US policies? If some wondered why Abe had to visit Washington just a month before Trump is due in Tokyo and two months before he is scheduled to go to Osaka, the response is to buy time or preempt statements that could put Abe in a bad light at home. Desperation for a positive image of his relationship with Trump is the apparent explanation. This may suggest a compelling concern for national interests at a trying time when Japan’s world is falling apart

The case of South Korea

On April 23, 2019 Japan’s foreign ministry issued its latest diplomatic bluebook.2 It showed new pragmatism by excising the 2018 statement that the “four Northern Territory islands belong to Japan.” No longer is Russia being aroused by such statements or those that refer to “illegal occupation.” On North Korea, the previous warning of a great threat from its nuclear weapons and missiles and appeal for maximum pressure as well as for summoning the pressure of international society on the abductee issue has been dropped in favor of a forward-looking approach. In contrast, language has hardened toward South Korea on “comfort women” and now indemnification demands on Japanese firms for conscripted labor, pointing to a very challenging situation instead of calling again for developing ties toward a new forward-looking era.

A case can be made that Abe has no willingness to make the bold decision to take the issue of national identity off the table, as much as possible, with South Korea. Unlike the movements in the United States to acknowledge and make amends for past national transgressions, there is no corresponding movement in Japan to accept the forced nature of the annexation of Korea and to revisit and make amends for flagrant violations of human rights that transpired. Legally, the 1965 normalization treaty settled matters without reparations, and the 2015 agreement would have let Abe get by with state funding of a foundation to pay the remaining “comfort women” and a quite minimal statement of responsibility. This is not the same as a forthright accounting and apology in serious expectation that the historical divide can be bridged. Abe has downplayed his earlier agenda to reverse the Kono statement and other steps toward reconciliation in the 1990s and he did go some distance in the 2015 agreement, but it would be a stretch to conclude that universal values and multilateral national interests are driving policy toward South Korea. However much Seoul is to blame for recent flareups of bilateral tension, Tokyo’s lack of pragmatism stands out.

Never has the values gap between Tokyo and Seoul been so strident without each desperately making its case to Washington, as if it proving that its values are not out of line since they are consistent with US ones. Seoul appears unconcerned about alienating Washington on this issue, while Tokyo regards Seoul’s behavior as so outside the pale it does not need to press its case in Washington. Many appear to be waiting out Moon Jae-in, assuming that his obsession with North Korea will end badly and he and his successor will be driven back to the United States, and, as a consequence, to Japan. Thus, there is no more for Tokyo to do. It has demonstrated its pragmatism, putting national interests and universal values above narrow considerations. Few in 2019 expect Abe and Moon to meet except cursorily at the sidelines of international gatherings. The relationship is frozen until Seoul resolves its own choice between the US and North Korea. Abe could sit back and wait, claiming the moral high ground and the role of principal US ally.

Abe does not have the luxury of time, however, when Trump is impatient about building a record for reelection in 2020 and Kim Jong-un is in a hurry to get sanctions relief through diplomacy. In the context of volatile US-North Korean relations and Sino-US relations, Abe is siding with his ally, but showing signs of hedging for closer economic ties to China and direct diplomacy with North Korea. It is not necessarily clear how advocacy of universal values and multilateralism as well as alliance strengthening can suffice when Trump’s unpredictability leaves Abe exposed to sudden lurches in the relationship and Kim’s diplomacy could turn sharply with little warning. In pursuing what he sees as great power diplomacy—proactive and multi-directional—Abe risks overselling Japan’s potential influence. Moon has shifted Seoul to “Japan-passing,” as if it holds little meaning for resolving the critical North Korean question. Putin appears to have dismissed Abe’s overtures after six years of Abe wooing him. The fact that Xi Jinping has now entertained Abe’s quest for a less adversarial relationship does not mean that Japan is now perceived as an actor capable of influencing China’s policies instead of an expedient choice amid uncertainty in Sino-US relations. Kim Jong-un has shown no flexibility on the abductions issue, which still is a precondition for bilateral talks. Above all, overwhelming dependence on the United States at a time of US indifference to the interests of allies leaves Abe exposed as the leader of a peripheral power—a middle power at odds with its national identity. Abe’s poor relationship with Moon, as the two middle power leaders clash over national identities and strikingly different notions of how to manage North Korea and great power relations, encapsulates the limits of his pragmatism.

Japan and South Korea have many things in common: the prime targets under threat from North Korea and China’s pressure against the US alliance system and missile defenses; the objects of Trump’s wrath over insufficient host-nation support, as if they are “ripping off” their ally; and democracies in need of the liberal international order to bolster their standing on the front lines of a polarizing region. Abe’s claims to champion universal values and multilateralism in defense of that order are undercut by the troubled relationship with South Korea. If blame is widely put on Moon Jae-in for the downturn since he took office, Japan’s tendency to demonize the South for its national identity and distinct geopolitical concerns goes far beyond Moon’s initiatives. If there is one serious shortcoming to Abe’s turn to pragmatism and security multilateralism, it is his failure to anticipate the backlash to the 2015 “comfort women” agreement and the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula by finding ways to boost Japan’s image in South Korea and to keep the momentum of trilateralism going forward, even under recent challenging circumstances.


This article is being finished at the very juncture of transition on May 1 from the Heisei to the Reiwa era. After thirty years, characterized by the rise in both a realist and an identity-driven foreign policy, Japan will be searching for a combination of interests and values that meets the needs of a regional and world order strikingly different from what was anticipated in the early post-Cold War period. If balancing regionalism and globalization was the foremost challenge in the 1990s-2000s, Abe is the transitional leader who has led the way in the 2010s to defining the principal challenge of the next era. In place of regionalism, where Japan expected a leadership role in community building, he has refocused on balancing against a China-led region with no expectation of Tokyo having a role in defining regionalism. It is no longer an identity issue. In face too of US reorientation, Japan has upped its role in shaping globalization. Thus, compared to the Heisei heyday, Reiwa appears to usher in a period more favorable to universal values in conjunction with pro-active globalization and less favorable to narrow values linked to Asianism.

As seen around the world, globalization leaves a disconnect with national identity that facilitates a rise in narrow civilizational re-assertiveness. Abe has called for a “normal Japan” with historical pride in a manner that has so far allowed Japan to support globalization without fear that it would lead to a backlash centered on rejection of the establishment. In managing Japan-US ties during the Trump era as well as the Obama era, he so far has found a sustainable approach as long as the Trump administration does not force Abe’s hand. He had seemed to have found a way to manage relations with South Korea in the Park Geun-hye era, but it has failed in the Moon Jae-in period. Given the significance of the Japan-US-ROK triangle, in facing North Korea and China, it is not yet clear whether Abe can launch the Reiwa era on a viable path without value differences in the three democratic states within a US-led alliance framework undermining their shared interests.

Much of the credit for avoiding the sort of disruption to the political world seen in the United States and across much of Europe goes not to Abe, but to circumstances that predate him in Japan. The lack of immigration is one. The thirst for stability after political musical chairs in the two decades to 2012 is another. A third factor is the weakness of political opposition after the DPJ struck out in 2009-12. Finally, there is the nature of the nexus between Japan’s distinctive national identity and universal values, showing resilience repeatedly since 1945. Abe alone is not responsible for keeping Japan on an even keel when so many other democracies are in turmoil.

Abe, nonetheless, can be credited with preempting challenges, coopting dissent, steering Japan through a time of vulnerability, and emerging as a strong defender of the liberal-international order able so far to fend off potential serious and unpredictable threats. Those inclined to appeal to unique Japanese virtues in these times find that Abe is occupying that space, leaving little room to be outflanked. Those tempted to fault Abe for hugging Trump so closely see him in the forefront in rebooting ties with China, as public opinion remains so wary of that country that few would dare to go further. If many have little trust in Abe’s vision or are alienated altogether, they have nowhere to turn on the basis of an appeal to national identity or national interests. Abe more than any other leader of a major democracy has weathered the storm of the late 2010s.

1. This article draws heavily on the bi-monthly “Country Report: Japan” posted in The Asan Forum.

2. Asahi Shimbun digital, April 23, 2019