Coerced by history and pride
What was he thinking? That is the question that most thoughtful observers of the US-Japan alliance grappled with last week. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had fumbled questions about the Japanese government's role in recruiting 'comfort women' during the second world war.
His responses came close to undoing the progress he had made in restoring relations with China and South Korea, and threatened to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. They reveal uncomfortable truths about Japan - facts that the US must nonetheless acknowledge when dealing with its ally.
The controversy began on March 1, when Mr Abe was asked about a Liberal Democratic Party group that wanted the government to revisit - in other words, rescind - the 1993 statement by then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono. It declared that the military had been involved in establishing 'comfort stations'. In many cases, comfort women were recruited against their own will 'through coaxing, coercion, etc ...', it said.
Conservatives object to two points: the role the military played and the degree to which it actually 'coerced' women. Mr Abe said the meaning of 'coercion' was unclear, and the accuracy of the statement depended on how the word was defined. Ignored was his comment that his government stood behind the Kono statement.
The readiness to challenge the conclusion that the government coerced the women unleashed a firestorm of controversy, not least because the US House of Representatives had just heard testimony from former comfort women that seemed to confirm the charge.
Why did Mr Abe fan the flames, especially when they threatened to undercut the diplomacy that offered such promise for the new administration?
First, it should be noted that the prime minister wasn't volunteering for controversy: he didn't choose to make this an issue. He was responding to questions triggered by the actions of others. This does not excuse or fully explain the response, however, or the bumbling since.
One explanation is that Mr Abe, like many other conservatives, genuinely believes that the Kono statement was wrong. This argument also rests on a sense of nationalism: many conservatives don't like to see their country singled out for criticism. The Kono statement implies that Japanese behaviour was somehow different from that of other countries, and that Tokyo must apologise for the sorts of things that other governments do not.
Underlying that conclusion - and obliging Mr Abe to defend it - is domestic politics. The prime minister believes that Japan should be a more assertive country, one that is judged by its record of the past 60 years rather than for the sins of its forefathers. His domestic political base agrees, and they both resent being told what to do by any country.
Ironically, there are many in the US and Asia who agree that it is time to stop dwelling on the past. Unfortunately, Mr Abe's comments make it impossible for even Japan's supporters to move past the history debate. This all drives home the rising significance of domestic politics in Northeast Asia, and the transitions in all nations as the international environment evolves and a new generation comes to power. No country is immune to these pressures, and no relationship is inoculated against their effects.
Decision-makers in both the US and Tokyo must recognise that the good relations of the past few years buy only a limited amount of political capital. There is no resting on laurels. There is no substitute for continuing efforts to overcome increasingly powerful domestic political interests. That needs to be foremost in the minds of alliance supporters in both countries.
As the first Japanese prime minister born after the war, Mr Abe had an opportunity to pursue a forward-looking agenda. Instead, he and his more conservative colleagues have forced us once again to dwell on the past. Does this really serve Mr Abe's, or Japan's, interest?
Ralph Cossa and Brad Glosserman are president and executive director, respectively, of the Pacific Forum CSIS. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS