Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council earlier in the Obama administration, has drawn attention for remarks criticizing comments made by Abe Shinzō and other Japanese leaders about Japan's wartime past. As Kyodo reports:
Bader...also warned the U.S. government could be more "vocal" if Japan reviewed past statements in which the government formally apologized for wartime aggressions in other Asian countries.
Bader's statement provides an interesting contrast to more enthusiastic accounts of US-Japan cooperation under the second Abe administration.
On the one hand, the US-Japan alliance will not be fundamentally undermined by Abe and other senior LDP politicians' questioning past apologies for Japan's wartime behavior. US-Japan security cooperation is too important regionally and too institutionalized to be much affected by impolitic statements. The US military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will continue to train together no matter what Japanese politicians say.
On the other hand, the US-Japan alliance is not the only US relationship in East Asia and if other allies, say, South Korea, voice their disapproval about Japan's leaders directly to the US president, the US cannot be indifferent. (Japanese right wingers say the US cannot be indifferent because of the influence of Asian-American interest groups, but I don't think it's necessary to cite the nefarious influence of lobbying groups to explain why the US might have a problem with tension between its two major allies in Northeast Asia.)
So what can the US do about the "history wars" in East Asia? Is being more vocal the answer? Ideally, the first step to US involvement would be to establish just what kind of comments or behavior would draw reproach from senior US officials. Would Abe's remarks about whether Japan "invaded" its neighbors qualify? Or the US only step in when the Japanese government undermines official apologies? Would visits to Yasukuni by the prime minister or cabinet ministers draw rebuke? What about statements like Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru's comments about comfort women? Would Hashimoto be criticized even though he is not a national official?
Second, would the US response be limited to rhetoric action, or would it be matched by symbolic gestures? Would the US administration withhold state dinners or invitations to Camp David?
However, the more one thinks about Bader's suggestion and its implications, the more it seems that the US is already fairly vocal about Japanese prevarication about history. In recent years there is no shortage of examples of legislators and administration officials criticizing the words and actions of Japanese leaders. As Dennis Halpin writes (pdf) in a note on President Park's address to a joint session of Congress last month, when an address by Koizumi Junichirō to a joint session was being mooted during Koizumi's valedictory trip to the US in 2006, the late Congressman Henry Hyde wrote to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, saying that to have Koizumi, a regular visitor to Yasukuni Shrine, speak in Congress would "an affront to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor and dishonor the place where President Roosevelt made his 'Date of Infamy' speech." Of course, the House of Representatives also rebuked Japan in 2007 when it passed House Resolution 121, calling on Japan to "formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner" for the wartime "comfort women." The executive branch has done its part as well. For example, during Abe's visit to Washington earlier this year, Danny Russel, Bader's successor at the NSC, called for Japan to do more to encourage historical reconciliation.
A more interesting question, then, is what effect US intervention has had thus far on Japanese leaders. I think one can make the case that statements by US officials have at least helped blunt talk of revising or replacing the Kōno statement on the comfort women and the Murayama apology for the war. Perhaps it has also kept Abe from visiting Yasukuni while serving as prime minister. However, it is hard to imagine US intervention in the history wars achieving more than it already has. It is unlikely that US intervention will change what anyone thinks about history, and it may even result in more provocative statements by right-wing Japanese politicians and commentators outside government, the kind of Japanese conservatives who have found a political home in Hashimoto and Ishihara Shintarō's Japan Restoration Party. These conservatives, after all, already believe the US holds Japan in contempt — as Air Self-Defense Forces General-turned-talking-head Tamogami Toshio writes (jp) in his defense of Hashimoto — and so would perhaps even make a point of defying US criticism. To the extent that Japan's neighbors treat all provocations equally, more active US involvement in the history wars could exacerbate tensions.
Being "more vocal" may not, therefore, be without risks. There may not be much the US can do other than prevent Japanese leaders from changing the status quo in the history wars. Resolving the history issue may ultimately depend on the Japanese people themselves. As Stanford's Daniel Sneider argues in a new article in Asia-Pacific Review (discussed here), the revisionist narrative is by no means the dominant historical narrative in Japan. The only way for Japanese to change the incorrect image of Japan as a nation of revisionist warmongers is for Japanese speak up when their leaders try to rewrite history, as encouragingly happened after Hashimoto's remarks. To the extent that the US can encourage and praise Japanese behavior in pursuit of historical reconciliation, it might actually be able to do more good than if it were to step up its criticism of Japan's leaders. Of course, whether reconciliation happens will depend on the willingness of Japan's neighbors to acknowledge that most Japanese recognize the wrongs committed by their country and to come to see Japan's right wing as aberrant, not representative.