Posted by: Ian Rowley on March 2, 2009
Before becoming Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner wasted no time warning Japan that the Obama Administration would not welcome any attempts by Tokyo to weaken the yen. “It’s very important for the U.S. and for the global economy that our major trading partners operate with a flexible exchange rate system, in which market forces determine the value of exchange rates,” he said after he was asked about the possibility that Japan may intervene to weaken the yen on Jan. 22. Yet, that tough talking aside, the Japan-US relationship seems to be holding up. Indeed, despite the financial crisis and the increased importance of U.S.-China relations, there has been plenty of cozying up between Tokyo and Washington of late.
On Feb. 17, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Japan her first port of call on a tour a visit to Asia. A week later, Taro Aso, Japan’s deeply unpopular Prime Minister, became the first foreign leader to visit President Obama at the White House. And now, according to reports in Japan today, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko may visit to Pearl Harbor in July following a visit to Canada.
The latter is certainly intriguing. If it happens, the symbolic move would see the Emperor do something no sitting Japanese prime minister has done, although dovish House of Representatives leader Yohei Kono visited in December. It would also show the lengths Japan’s government is going to maintain bilateral relations with the new U.S. administration. With North Korea as unpredictable as ever, that’s something Tokyo sees a vital despite China overtaking the U.S. as its largest trading partner.
For all that, one wonders how much Japan would gain from an imperial visit to Hawaii. While a welcome gesture in many ways, it also risks opening old wounds—and not just in the U.S. The imperial couple reportedly considered a visit to Pearl Harbor in 1994, but it never happened amid concerns at home. Japan’s small but vocal right-wing groups are unlikely to welcome the visit.
Perhaps more important, there is also China, Korea and other Asian neighbors to consider. While anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. is fairly muted these days, in China trouble still flares from time to time. In 2005, for instance, 10,000 protesters in Beijing clashed with riot police and nearly stormed the Japanese Embassy. Protesters accused Tokyo of whitewashing wartime atrocities, such as the 1937 massacre of civilians at Nanjing, in new editions of school history books. The next day, demonstrators in the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen trashed Japanese storefronts and called for boycotts of goods.
If Emperor and Empress are headed for Pearl Harbor, pressure may grow for the similar visits in Asia. That would create a tricky situation. In Japan, with some justification, people complain that the Emperor could apologize a hundred times and it would never be enough for some Asian neighbors, adding that that anti-Japanese sentiment often stems from governments adept at using nationalism for domestic political gain.
Yet, while the Emperor has made numerous statements of remorse about Japan’s wartime activities in Asia, and visited the U.S. territory of Saipan in 2005, praying for the Japanese, Korean, American and local lives lost, doing nothing risks reinforcing criticisms that Tokyo has never really appeared truly contrite. That’s certainly the view of Lee Myung Bak, Korea’s President. Last year, he called for Emperor Akihito to undertake a genuine gesture of contrition for Japan’s country’s wartime aggression in Asia. In a December interview with the Times of London, Lee said that that Emperor Akihito should follow the example of Germany’s late leader Willy Brandt, who by genuflecting in front of a monument to Polish Jews killed during World War Two, became a symbol of postwar German contrition.