Don't expect any big surprises when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington on Friday. The communiqué issued after his White House meeting with President Obama will contain plenty of soothing generalities. Both sides want it that way.
Most Americans, to the extent that they think of their closest Asian ally at all, have come to think of Japan as that most boring of countries, a place that produces good cars, weird toilets, and little in the way of real news. That view is no longer entirely up to date. These days Tokyo lies smack on the geopolitical fault line between a rising China and an apprehensive United States. And Washington can scarcely hope to manage the shifting balance of power in East Asia without the help of Japan, its most powerful friend in the region.
The problem is that Japanese leaders have a tendency to become their own worst enemies. And no one exemplifies this better than Shinzo Abe.
He's a staunch conservative, a fact that resonates with voters at a time of rising skepticism about Chinese intentions. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in last October's general election, returning to power after a rare five years in the wilderness. There's no question that Abe is popular -- and that's due not least to his reputation as a China-basher.
Over the years Abe has established himself as one of the paragons of the right wing of the LDP, a conservative party that has ruled Japan for most of the postwar period. He has long been a supporter of efforts to revise history textbooks to minimize Japanese responsibility for World War II. He has denied that Chinese and Korean women were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war (the "comfort women" controversy). And he has questioned the legitimacy of the Allied war crimes tribunal that sentenced several Japanese leaders to death after the war. He has paid many visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo site that honors the memory of Japan's war dead (including 14 top-level war criminals). When Abe unveiled his new government in January, The Economist described it a "cabinet of radical nationalists."
Such positions predictably enrage some of the countries that suffered from Japanese policies, which accuse the Japanese of trying to shirk responsibility for their wartime misdeeds. The country that usually reacts the most allergically to efforts to whitewash that past is China, which lost somewhere between 10 to 20 million people during the war. Korea (now divided into South and North) was a Japanese colonial possession for more than four decades. For the Americans, this touchy legacy is complicated by the fact that China is not one of their allies, while South Korea is. Conveniently for China, the history issue frequently pits Seoul and Tokyo against each other, undermining U.S. efforts to forge a common front against Beijing.
And now, of course, an increasingly assertive China is throwing its weight around, threatening the strategic status quo in a number of places around East Asia. One of those spots is the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyutai in Chinese), at the very tip of the Okinawan island chain in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islands have been under Japanese control (with an interlude of U.S. administration after 1945) since the late 19th century, but Beijing insists they're Chinese territory -- a claim that inflames nationalist passions on the mainland (as well as on Taiwan, which also claims the islands). The Chinese government has repeatedly sent planes and ships into the area to probe Japan's defenses, sometimes engaging in high-risk games of chicken with the Japanese Coast Guard.