Repentant Abe sets the right tone

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2007, 12:00am

Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, showed yesterday that he is genuinely working for peace and reconciliation in Asia. At ceremonies marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of the second world war, with Asian governments and Japanese nationalists watching his every word and action, he chose to court the former.

Mr Abe's decision not to pay homage to Japan's war dead at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, as his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, repeatedly did, and expressing repentance for the nation's militaristic past are to be applauded. His position was courageous given his low domestic opinion poll ratings and pressure to appease conservative members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the electorate.

Such an approach is, after all, the only way forward for Japan. In a globalised world where China has a growing and increasingly central role, the ways of the past cannot be maintained.

All but one of Mr Abe's cabinet also understood this yesterday, giving Yasukuni a wide berth. Mr Koizumi, still in parliament, and 47 colleagues, ignored that reality.

The prime minister took the course despite intense pressure from right-wing Japanese to do otherwise. With his government highly unpopular due to a series of scandals and the LDP losing control of the upper house of parliament in elections last month for the first time since it was formed 52 years ago, they expected nationalism.

Instead, they got a leader who although once intent on rewriting the pacifist constitution and removing references to the atrocities committed by Japan from school textbooks, further proved a commitment to improving relations with Asian nations. He may not have offered the apology that China, South Korea and others have long sought, but his pledge to work for peace and his ignoring of the right wing's desires set an appropriate tone.

Mr Abe is walking a political tightrope after less than a year in office. Whatever his domestic failings, though, his commitment to improving ties with China and the region is the only blueprint for Japan's foreign policy.