US-Japan Relations under Abe Shinzo

When Abe Shinzo became prime minister for a second time, the reaction in Washington was decidedly mixed. In both the Obama administration and the policy/intellectual community of Japan-watchers, two sets of expectations and two sets of concerns quickly emerged. The first expectation was that Abe would focus on reviving the Japanese economy, as he had promised after assuming the LDP presidency on September 26, three months before becoming prime minister after the LDP’s landslide victory in the December 16 general elections. The second expectation was that he would strengthen US-Japan relations, especially security relations, based on his criticism of the three years and three months of DPJ rule and pledge that he would “restore the trust that the US had in Japan before the DPJ destroyed it.” Both sets of expectations led to optimism about prospects for bilateral relations over the coming years.

On the negative side, the first concern was that Abe’s nationalism and non-mainstream views of history, which had proved controversial when he was prime minister for the first time from 2006-2007, would resurface. The second concern was that these views may lead Abe to say or do things that could exacerbate Japan’s relations with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, which could complicate the Obama administration’s “Asia rebalance,” which aimed to engage Asia’s emerging powers (including China) while also strengthening US alliances in the region (including cooperation with and between Japan and South Korea).

In the two years since Abe assumed the office of the prime minister, the bilateral relationship, as seen from the United States, can be described as having evolved in four phases: 1) honeymoon, 2) concern, 3) disappointment, and 4) ambivalence. This article traces each of the phases, then focuses on Abe’s diverse, personal impact, and finally assesses the prospects for relations in light of recent election results, issues of greatest US concern, and Abe’s possible longevity.


The honeymoon period began with Abe taking steps to fulfill his pledge to fix the Japanese economy and to restore the US-Japan security relationship. There was hope that, despite his nationalistic views, he was at heart a pragmatist. Those who wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt pointed to the fact that his first overseas trip when he became prime minister in 2006 was to visit China to confirm a “senryakuteki gokei kankei” (“mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”). He had also refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Some observers thought that just as Richard Nixon was able to open US relations with China in the early 1970s because of his conservative credentials, Abe would be able to improve Japan’s relations with China precisely because of his nationalistic views.

Abe’s visit to Washington from February 22-24, 2013, raised expectations further. His statements about Japan’s interest in joining the TPP negotiations and moving forward on the plan—questioned by Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio in 2009—to relocate the controversial Futenma Marine Air Station in Okinawa were welcomed by the Obama administration. In addition, Abe’s public assertion that “Japan is back” was embraced by Americans who had seen the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s (symbolized by Ezra Vogel’s Japan As Number One) tumble to the depths of recession and deflation following the bursting of the bubble in the early 1990s. Having seen 15 prime ministers over 22 years to 2012, Americans were hopeful that Abe would provide Japan much-needed political stability, continuity, and leadership.


Although Abe’s visit had gone well, clouds started to emerge over the relationship. One initial cause for concern was the April 21 visit by Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro to the Yasukuni Shrine. Although the implicit “understanding” with China that Japanese political leaders should refrain from visiting the shrine appeared to be limited to the prime minister, foreign minister, and chief cabinet secretary, Aso’s visit, as finance minister and deputy prime minister, was seen by foreign observers as an ominous signal of where the government was headed. On April 23, Abe stated during a Diet debate: “The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community. Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from.” This statement was criticized not only by China and South Korea, but also by several US media organizations, whose editorials accused Abe of denying Japan’s “aggression” in the 1930s and 1940s.

On May 13, Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru had this to say about comfort women: “In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives. If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.” His comments attracted attention because although not a member of the Abe government, as co-head of the Japan Restoration Party, he was seen as a promising leader with aspirations for national political office. In addition, his comments had elicited support from a sizable group of conservatives, including several politicians close to Abe.

On July 29, Aso again drew worldwide attention for his comments at a conference in Tokyo: “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?” His comments were particularly noteworthy because he said them at a conference sponsored by the Japan Institute of National Fundamentals, a think tank headed by Sakurai Yoshiko, a proponent of constitutional revision and prominent supporter of Abe and his views on history.


The Obama administration’s concern changed to disappointment on December 26, 2013, when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. This came as a surprise, since most of Abe’s foreign policy advisors had told US officials that Abe was not likely to visit the shrine soon. When LDP Diet members visited Washington in 2013, they were invariably advised by American interlocutors that a prime ministerial visit would not be welcomed, and Vice President Biden reportedly conveyed the same concerns to Abe in person, and even went so far as to suggest to South Korean President Park Geun-hye that Abe was not likely to visit the shrine.

The US Embassy statement issued after the visit stated, “Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” This wording was reportedly the result of considerable discussion within the Obama administration, with some of the earlier drafts indicating stronger language than “disappointed.” The Japanese version of the statement uses the word “shitsubo,” which some Japanese have criticized as too harsh The word they often offer as an alternative is “zannen.” However, the Japanese version was reportedly produced after considerable discussion by US government officials fluent in Japanese and Japanese nationals with native language fluency, so there should be no doubt about US intentions.

The US reaction to Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine elicited emotional criticisms from conservatives in Japan who accused the United States of abandoning its ally, Japan, in favor of China and South Korea. It also appeared to have emboldened some in Japan to take a defiant attitude toward the United States on issues of history. For instance, on January 25, 2014, the newly-appointed chairman of NHK, Momii Katsuto, said in his first news conference that the system of military brothels was “common in any country at war. Can we say there were none in Germany or France? It was everywhere in Europe.” He went on to say that the comfort women issue has been “complicated because South Korea says Japan was the only country that forcibly recruited (women).” Around the same time, Hyakuta Naoki, a close friend of Abe, claimed that the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 never occurred and that Americans staged the Tokyo War Crimes Trials after World War II to cover up US war crimes, which included the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the mass firebombing of Tokyo in the spring of 1945. Hyakuta had recently been appointed by the Abe government to serve on the board of governors of NHK, This elicited the following from the US Embassy on February 7: “These suggestions are preposterous. We hope that people in positions of responsibility in Japan and elsewhere would seek to avoid comments that inflame tensions in the region.”

Although it would be unfair to blame Abe for each and every controversial statement uttered about history by his fellow cabinet members and those he appointed to quasi-government organizations such as NHK, it is noteworthy that he has rarely rebuked such individuals or rebutted such statements in public. Nor has he removed a single such person from his or her position. In contrast, Abe has been quick to point out for public condemnation individuals (such as Tanaka Hitoshi, a former diplomat) and institutions (such as the Asahi Shimbun), with whose views or actions on diplomacy or history he disagrees.


By April 23, 2014, when Obama visited Japan, the relationship could be characterized as ambivalent. On the president’s two-day trip, Abe achieved all of his objectives: (1) the first official state visit to Japan by a US president in 18 years; (2) a clear statement by the president that the Senkaku Islands fall under the coverage of Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty; (3) a strong endorsement by the president of Japan’s moves to exercise the right of collective self-defense; and (4) the opportunity to show that he is striving to establish with the president a close personal “Barack/Shinzo” relationship in the manner of Ronald Reagan and Nakasone Yasuhiro in the 1980s (when his father, Abe Shintaro, was foreign minister) and George W. Bush and Koizumi Junichiro in the early 2000s.

From Obama’s perspective, however, he did not achieve the breakthrough on TPP for which he and Trade Representative Michael Froman had hoped on the trip. In fact, the front-page lead story in the New York Times of April 25 was “Obama Suffers Setbacks in Japan and the Mideast,” portraying Obama’s visit as a failure because there was no breakthrough on TPP. In addition, Obama was visibly uncomfortable sharing the podium with Abe when, in answer to a reporter’s question, Abe went on at some length to justify why he had visited Yasukuni.

Since the April visit, Obama and Abe have met at several regional and multilateral events. There is a clear recognition of the need for the two to work closely and cooperatively as allies. At the same time, Abe’s ideological orientation does not resonate well with many in Obama’s administration. Abe and his supporters appear more comfortable with Republicans, who were counterparts when Abe was prime minister in 2006-2007, when his father was foreign minister in the 1980s, and when his grandfather was prime minister in the 1950s. Most of his and his family’s ties to the United States have been with Republicans, and it will be interesting to see whether Abe and his supporters can remain neutral as the US presidential election draws nearer. In every US presidential election since 1984, the LDP has overtly or covertly supported the Republican nominee, ostensibly on the rationale, promoted by Republicans and widely shared in Japan, that Democrats are protectionists on trade and consider China more important than Japan—one of numerous reasons that the Japanese establishment (many, but not all, LDP politicians, government bureaucrats, business leaders, and journalists) have since the 1980s preferred Republicans to Democrats.

The “Good Abe”: The Economy

By the summer of 2013, only a few months into his tenure as prime minister, three views of Abe had emerged in Washington: the “Good Abe,” the “Bad Abe,” and the “Uncertain Abe.” The “Good Abe” is the bold leader who was trying to revive the Japanese economy by implementing the “three arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and growth policy. Monetary easing had the effect of boosting stock prices (a 57 percent rise in the Nikkei index in the first year) and of weakening the yen (from 82 yen to 102 yen in the first year). Abenomics received high marks among many Americans, including Nobel-prize winning economists such as Paul Krugman at Princeton University and Joseph Stiglitz at Columbia University. The first arrow of monetary policy and the selection of Kuroda Haruhiko as the governor of the Bank of Japan were welcomed and seen as contributing, at the very least, to boosting business and consumer confidence. However, negative effects of yen appreciation started to gain attention by the second year of Abenomics.

The second arrow of fiscal stimulus was also welcomed initially as a show of commitment that the Abe government would put top priority on economic renewal. However, questions quickly emerged whether such stimulus would exacerbate the government debt problem and whether investment would actually be used strategically to sustain long-term productive economic growth, or whether there would be a return to old-style LDP pork barrel politics in doling out funds with more political than economic content. The announcement on September 7, 2013, that Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games was a much-needed boost, but the jury on arrow two is still out.

The most controversial element of Abenomics has been the third arrow. Whereas the first two arrows are actions that the government takes, the third—undertaking structural reform, promoting regulatory reform, and creating a competitive environment to promote long-term sustained economic growth—requires the active participation, or at least acquiescence, of the private sector. But whether one looks at agriculture, healthcare, distribution, land use, or labor markets (including employment practices, women, and immigration), powerful vested interests have every incentive to resist change. In addition to requiring political capital to overcome this resistance, the economic benefits are likely to be longer term whereas the political liabilities are immediate. Does Abe have the political will to take long-term economic gain over short-term political loss, especially given the other priorities he has?

The “Bad Abe”: History

The view of Japan’s modern history held by Abe and his supporters is at odds with the conventional view of history taught in postwar Japan. Although he has not systematically defined, at least publicly, what he means by “sengo regime kara no dakkyaku” (“escape the shackles of the postwar regime”), the inference one can draw from Abe’s speeches and writings is that he would, if given a free hand, want to change the conventional narrative of modern Japanese history away from what he sees as a “masochistic” view to one that highlights the achievements of Japan, so that Japanese can take more pride in their history.

Central to such an effort would be to revise the Constitution to make it a “genuinely Japanese” constitution, not one “imposed” on Japan by the US occupation forces. The revised constitution would grant greater powers to the state and less to the people, and eliminate the constraints on Japan’s military provided by Article 9. The thinking is that the United States—in the name of reform and democratization—has created a society in postwar Japan that is forever dependent on it, limiting Japan’s quest to be an independent and autonomous nation.

In this context, it is easier to understand why Abe and his supporters want to glorify Japan’s past and minimize aspects that have attracted foreign opprobrium—including the Nanjing Massacre, “comfort women,” and the actions that led the Tokyo War Crimes Trials to hand down guilty verdicts on Japan’s leaders in the 1930s and 1940s. Abe has written that those found guilty are not guilty under Japanese law. He may see no reason, as prime minister, not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the war dead since, in his mind, there is no distinction between the souls of the 14 Class-A war criminals and others interred at Yasukuni.

The debates over history entered a new phase in August 2014, when Asahi Shimbun admitted publicly that several articles it had published in the 1980s and 1990s based on the testimony of Yoshida Seiji, a veteran of World War II who testified that he saw Korean women being forced by the Japanese military into sexual slavery, were false. This led to the resignation of its president, Kimura Tadakazu, in December 2014, and the establishment by Asahi of a third-party committee of outsiders to do a fact-finding inquiry. More importantly, it led many conservatives in Japan to argue that the retraction was proof that claims of sexual slavery were false and that the 1996 United Nations report on comfort women authored by Radhika Coomaraswamy should be revised. They also argued that the Asahi retraction had invalidated the US House of Representative resolution of 2007 on the same subject. Neither the UN report nor the House resolution relied much on the Asahi reports, which had been called into question by professional historians years ago, but this did not prevent conservatives from claiming that it was another case of Japan being misunderstood and unfairly criticized abroad.

Some Americans object to the substance of what they see as the “revisionist” view of history advocated by Abe and his supporters, often referring to the efforts Germany has undertaken to come to terms with its past and the need for Japan to undertake similar efforts in order to earn the trust of its Asian neighbors. Other Americans are less troubled by the substance of these views—after all, according to this view, each nation has its own views of history, and the Chinese and South Koreans are merely using “history” to criticize Japan for domestic political purposes. But even this group is concerned that tensions over history are impeding cooperation between Japan and South Korea and could draw the United States into having to take sides militarily between Japan and China.

The “Uncertain Abe”: National Security

Americans, especially in the Department of Defense, who desire closer security cooperation, welcome the strengthening of Japan’s security posture under Abe: the increase in Japan’s defense budget, the announcement of a new national security strategy, the creation of a National Security Council, the enactment of a State Secrets Protection Law, the relaxation of the prohibition on the export of arms, and the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

The Abe government has explained these changes as moves that will facilitate US-Japan security cooperation. Some Japanese claim, with justification, that these are being undertaken in response to longstanding US requests for Japan to shoulder more responsibility for international security. During the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s and the War on Terror in the 2000s, the US government repeatedly pressured Japan to take a more active role in security.

Other Americans in the wider policy community and academia are less certain that these changes are necessary at this time fearing that a more active Japanese security posture could stimulate an arms race in Asia or seeing the most urgent challenges facing Japan as economic stagnation, demographic decline, and a huge government debt. In addition, there are many in Japan and abroad who believe that the Abe government is undertaking these changes more for its own purposes rather than for cooperation with the United States. This move toward self-reliance is based both on the desire for autonomy, as mentioned above, and on the perception that the United States is either unwilling to or incapable (especially financially) of continuing to be the policeman in Asia. There is a concern that Japan may seek an independent foreign policy at odds with US regional objectives.



Abe has experienced three national elections since becoming president of the LDP in September 2012—the Lower House in December 2012, the Upper House in July 2013, and the Lower House in December 2014. In each case, the LDP has emerged victorious; however, none was a ringing endorsement. Rather, they showed the opposition—especially the DPJ—in disarray. In the most recent election, the LDP and coalition partner Komeito ended up winning more than 68 percent of the seats, but the voter turnout was the lowest in postwar Japan—52.6 percent—and the number of total votes cast for the LDP declined. Abe’s approval ratings are on the decline, and in a post-election poll, Kyodo found that only 27 percent of respondents thought Abenomics would improve the economy, whereas 63 percent said they thought it would not. Only 34 percent of respondents supported Abe’s defense and security policies, whereas 55 percent did not. Abe claims a mandate, but the LDP won by default because there is no viable opposition. In a poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun during the election, 57 percent of respondents said that their main motivation for voting for a party was that it “seemed better than the others.”

The DPJ reign had proved disastrous, with inexperienced politicians trying to lead an internally divided party confronted by crises such as the Futenma Marine Air Station issue with the United States in 2009-2010, the sea vessel collision with China in 2010, and the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Although the party in power had changed to a non-LDP government for the first time in 54 years, the “1955 System” was still intact, making it exceedingly difficult for the DPJ to rule effectively. On January 18, 2015, the DPJ held its election to decide on the person to head the party succeeding Kaeda Banri, who lost his seat in the December 14 election. Although Hosono Goshi, 43, pushed for a generational change to revitalize the party, Okada Katsuya, 61, won the election over him and Nagatsuma Akira, 54. This continuity of leadership means that no unconventional initiatives are likely to come out of the DPJ for the time being, and that the political landscape between the LDP and opposition will not change in the near future.


From the vantage point of US policymakers, the major concerns with Japan fall into three areas: 1) economy, 2) security, and 3) global issues. On the economy, the top priority is concluding the TPP negotiations, which has three components: the bilateral negotiations, especially on market access in agricultural products; the multilateral negotiations among the 12 member countries; and the Obama administration securing TPA from the US Congress. Optimists are predicting a deal within the next few weeks, whereas pessimists see the negotiations dragging out until after the November 2016 presidential election.

Other economic issues of concern include the fate of Abenomics, especially after the unexpected decline in GDP in the second and third quarters of 2014. The decision on the re-starting of nuclear power plants and the decision on the mix of energy supply for the medium and longer term will be indicators of Japan’s economic prospects as well as of its contribution to solving issues related to global warming and climate change. The ongoing issues related to Japan’s government debt, including the timing of raising the consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent and perhaps beyond, will be subject to close scrutiny too, as Japan’s fiscal health will be increasingly challenged by low birth rates and an aging and shrinking population.

The second set of issues of concern to US policymakers is national security, in particular the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty Guidelines to reflect changes in the Asia-Pacific region since a similar exercise was undertaken 20 years ago. Related to this will be the issue of deployment of US armed forces in Japan, including in Okinawa, where the recent elections have resulted in wins for those advocating a reduced US force presence on Okinawa. The newly-elected governor, Onaga Takashi, does not share the view of his predecessor, Nakaima Hirokazu, who supported the US-Japan agreement on the relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station. Although the legal framework for the relocation is in place, it is by no means clear that the move can be implemented as planned, especially if opposition turns into overt and massive civil disobedience.

The third set of issues is less US-Japan specific, but can affect the relationship in important ways. This includes Japan’s relations with South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia, and Southeast Asia, as well as with other countries and regions of the world. In most cases, there is close cooperation with the United States, but there are areas where Japan believes it has a unique perspective, e.g. on abductees with North Korea, “comfort women” with South Korea, the Senkaku Islands with China, and the Northern Territories with Russia. It will be important for the two allies to communicate well on these issues so as not to catch the other by surprise.

Abe’s Longevity

Given the results of the recent election, Abe may become one of the longest-serving prime ministers in postwar Japan. Adding the one year he served as prime minister in 2006-2007 to his current more than two-year tenure, he is now in seventh place. If he serves through 2017, he would approach the tenure of Koizumi and Nakasone, making him third, behind only Sato Eisaku and Yoshida Shigeru. To what end will Abe use this long tenure and mandate, which will provide him continuity, stability, and perhaps political capital and momentum? Will he use it to conclude TPP, overcome the forces of resistance to make arrow three of Abenomics a success, create the environment to promote women and non-Japanese leadership positions, and revive Japan as a global economic powerhouse? Will he use it to strengthen Japan’s national security so that it can deploy troops abroad more readily than in the past and achieve the goal of making Japan the “normal state” that many have dreamed of, including perhaps possessing nuclear weapons? Will he use it to achieve his dream of “escaping the shackles of the postwar regime,” including revising the Constitution, rewriting textbooks, instilling patriotism and morals in the schools, and creating a generation of Japanese who have a different view of history than that taught during the 70 years since the end of the Second World War?

The world will be watching Japan with intense interest this year, especially since it is the 70th anniversary since the end of the war, and Abe has said he intends to issue a prime minister’s statement to commemorate the event. One hopes that the statement will be constructive and forward-looking. One also hopes that he will use his political capital and momentum to implement policies and take actions that will serve the long-term interests of the Japanese people and of the global community of which Japan is a key member.