December 6, 2005 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved.

Japan's Koizumi: From Great Politician to Great Statesman?

By Ralph A. Cossa
Global Beat Syndicate
—Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has demonstrated that he is a brilliant politician. His resounding victory in the Sept. 11 lower house Diet elections has provided him with the mandate needed to now demonstrate his brilliance as an international statesman as well, and he seems to realize that. In his summit talks here November 22, he proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Japan and Russia jointly develop the long-disputed “Northern Territories”—four small islands just north of Japan that have caused Tokyo to refuse to sign a World War II peace treaty with Moscow. This new approach could end a six-decade deadlock.

If he does step down next year as promised, he will have to be proud of. He has improved the economy, has moved Japan steadily toward becoming a “normal nation,” and a step closer to a much-deserved seat on the UN Security Council.

But by any measure, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul are considerably worse today than when he assumed office. While his Korean and Chinese counterparts must share the blame, primary responsibility rests with Koizumi, and the opportunity to reverse steadily worsening relations are chiefly up to him—if he is willing to be as bold a diplomat as he has been a politician.

Denied their wish for a Koizumi electoral defeat, leaders in Beijing and Seoul now appear intent on waiting him out, allowing relations to continue to deteriorate and, when possible, exploiting anti-Japan sentiments for political advantage. Meantime, Mr. Koizumi persists in his controversial annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which contains the spirits of 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals from WWII.

Again this year, Koizumi delivered a strong anti-war message, calling attention to Japan’s militaristic past and pledging “never again.” Unfortunately, the symbolism of the visits has completely overshadowed the message, making it easy for his detractors to exploit the visits.

Koizumi one last chance next year to stop exercising his right to visit Yasukuni. He should announce that, out of respect for his neighbor’s sensitivities, he will not visit Yasukuni, and then call on Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to meet with him in a three-way summit to discuss both history and the future. But that will only achieve the greater good if the leaders of China and South Korea are prepared to make an equally bold diplomatic gesture that allows all three countries to focus on the future instead of being continually blinded by the past. Mr. Putin’s response to Koizumi’s proposal to resolve the Northern Territories dispute serves as a model.

As regards history, Mr. Koizumi should personally endorse a recent textbook entitled “The Contemporary and Modern History of Three East Asian Countries” jointly produced by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scholars, which provides a balanced history of relations among the three states. Koizumi should pledge that every library in every school in Japan will receive multiple copies of the text.

The leaders of Korea and China should make the same pledge and also articulate to their own publics the positive things Japan has done to promote economic development in their countries over the past 60 years. Since the end of WWII, no country has a better record of promoting peace and prosperity than Japan.

A more balanced view of the history of both halves of the last century would go a long way toward healing the wounds of history jointly suffered by the people of China, Korea, and Japan, as would a toning down the rhetoric and a depoliticizing the history issue in all three countries.

Mr. Koizumi should take the critical next step by announcing his decision to curtail future visits in return for a three-way summit, and Presidents Roh and Hu should stress the positive things Japan has done in helping the economic miracles in South Korea and China, and pledge to move their trilateral relations constructively forward.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

© 2005 The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved. The Global Beat Syndicate, a service of The Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, provides editors with commentary and perspective articles on critical global issues from contributors around the world. For more information, check out

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