In advance of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday – the first ever by a Japanese leader — much of the conversation in this country has centered on history. Will Abe reiterate his nation’s apology for its behavior in World War II and, if so, what words will he choose? South Korea, colonized by Japan during the first half of the 20th century, has been campaigning vigorously to keep history in the spotlight during Abe’s visit.
To an extent, this is unsurprising. Seventy years after the end of the war, commemorations are planned in several countries. The last surviving victims of Japanese aggression — Korean “comfort women,” American prisoners of war — want clarity before their generation exits the stage. Abe’s record gives reason to worry about his commitment to such clarity. In his speech Wednesday, and in a historical assessment he is preparing to deliver this summer, it is important that he reaffirm Japan’s understanding of and remorse for its wartime offenses.
But if we’re looking at history, we ought not neglect the seven decades since 1945, either. Japan utterly transformed itself from a militaristic, imperialist society into a peaceable democracy, a reliable U.S. ally and a good neighbor to other Asian countries. To the extent it has regained influence, it is through economic prowess and development aid, not military might. Like Germany, in fact, it has been reticent to a fault in foreign affairs.
Now, like Germany, Japan is gingerly moving toward a more assertive role in the world, in ways that other democracies in Asia ought to welcome. Abe is seeking to reinterpret Japan’s “peace constitution,” unchanged since Americans wrote it during the postwar occupation, to allow Japan to aid allies, including the United States and South Korea, in times of need. He has reached out to Australia, India and other democracies while China seeks to expand its influence in the service of a very different political philosophy. He also is negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United States and 10 other Pacific nations that, if he delivers and Congress does not torpedo the deal, could further open Japan’s lucrative markets to U.S. products.
Ordinarily the United States finds itself pressing allies to increase their defense spending and play a larger role in maintaining peace and stability beyond their borders. Now comes Japan, already doing the former (if modestly) and offering to do the latter. Especially as other allies, such as Britain, retrench and turn inward, the United States should welcome the opportunity this presents.