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UPDATED: June 29, 2015 NO.27 JULY 2, 2015
Abe Pulls an About Face
The PM's recent interview with Chinese media augurs well for Sino-Japanese relations, but was this a carefully stage-managed PR stunt?
By Yu Lintao

Protesters hold banners as they attend a rally against a controversial bill for Japan's growing security engagement outside the Diet building in Tokyo on June 14 (XINHUA/AFP)

In southwest China's Sichuan Province, there exists an ancient performance art called "face changing." With the raise of a hand, the swing of a sleeve or a toss of the head, actors change from one face to another almost instantaneously to exude different emotions. Unbeknownst to himself, Shinzo Abe might just be a great proponent of this art.

On June 15, the hawkish Japanese prime minister, widely known for his historical revisionist stance and for taking a hard line on China, unexpectedly participated in an exclusive interview with a Chinese media outlet--Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV. In what was the first interview by a Japanese prime minister with Chinese-language media in seven years, Abe said Japan has deeply reflected upon its past and would not revisit its World War II (WWII) atrocities. He also said that he looked forward to developing Sino-Japanese relations for the mutual benefit of both countries.

Though Abe added nothing new to his now almost trademark use of the phrase "reflection on Japan's past," the gesture of accepting an interview by a Chinese TV station has given the outside world the impression that he has taken an abrupt U-turn in how he deals with China and other neighboring countries.

Track record

On many occasions in years past, however, Abe has repeatedly put forth that Japan's wartime actions should not be defined as "aggression,"though he admits that Japan caused much damage and suffering in regional countries before and during WWII. When questioned on the Potsdam Proclamation, which explicitly defined Japan's wartime actions as such, he claimed to be unaware of the relevant section of the document. He also declined to comment on whether or not the war had been justified.

As opposed to his predecessors, Abe has refused to offer formal apologies to his neighboring countries. Instead, he is much more familiar to the world for attempting to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution and for paying tribute to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where the remains of 14 Class-A WWII criminals are housed.

With regard to relations with China in his second term, Abe has repeatedly insinuated that China represents a threat to global stability and tried to woo regional countries in building a "democratic security diamond" to contain the country. As recently as last May, he tried forge a unified anti-China stand at the G7 summit by stoking concern over the South China Sea issue.

So why now has Abe accepted an exclusive interview with Chinese media? Has he experienced a change of heart? Does he really intend to repent for Japan's past war crimes, change his stance on the issue and thereby improve relations with China?

Most Chinese remain skeptical. After the broadcasting of the interview, a poll conducted by Phoenix TV showed that over 80 percent of Chinese respondents were suspicious of Abe's true intentions. The prevailing view is that Abe's gesture is merely a tactic to facilitate his domestic governance amid worries of economic slowdown.


Abe is not only a historical revisionist but also a realist in the true sense of the word. At present, both Abe's domestic security and economic policies are under pressure. A recent telephone survey by Japan's Kyodo News Agency revealed that support for Abe's cabinet has fallen to just above 40 percent, the lowest level since Abe took office in 2012.

The new Abe-proposed security bills that would expand the scope of operations by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have also met with great resistance from Japan's Diet as some have argued that the bills are in contravention of Japan's post-war security policy.

On the economic front, it is arguable that "Abenomics," as an economic ploy, is already a spent force. The increase in Japan's sales tax last year, which aimed at increasing government revenue and reducing its massive debt, has severely restrained consumption, casting doubts over Japan's economic recovery going into the long term.

Abe clearly knows how much the Chinese market means to Japan's economy. In 2014, Japan enjoyed a $54.51-billion worth trade surplus with China and China has remained to be the biggest importer of Japanese products for years. If bilateral ties cannot be thawed and if Japan's share of the Chinese market cannot be guaranteed, the Japanese economy will be affected negatively. And that's notwithstanding a potential boycott of Japanese goods in China.

Meanwhile, competition from European countries in the Chinese market has only added to Japan's woes. While most developed European economies have displayed enthusiasm toward cooperating with the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Japan remains one step behind. Thanks in part to sound bilateral relations, months ago, German automobile giant Volkswagen announced its decision to expand investment in China, and by 2019, the automaker's annual output in China is projected to reach 5 million. What does that figure mean for Japan's automobile industry? Abe knows better than perhaps anyone else.

By choosing Phoenix TV, a non-official but very popular media channel, for an interview, Abe was apparently aiming to curry favor with the average Chinese man on the street, in a show of goodwill on his country's behalf. From his perspective, this will limit any damage to economic ties incurred by diplomatic differences.

High hopes

Although Abe's gesture may contribute in a certain degree to a thawing of tensions between China and Japan, taking concrete action to win back the trust of his neighbors is undoubtedly more important.

A golden opportunity is soon to present itself. Abe is slated to issue a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of his country's WWII defeat in August. All eyes will be on Japan to see how the country chooses to mark its past. At such a formal moment, it will be "do or die" for Abe with regards to expressing his true views on matters relating to Japan's war crimes.

So how realistic is it to hope that his official statement will do justice to the situation? The outlook, sadly, is not that optimistic. Abe has claimed on many occasions that he will not use phrases such as "heartfelt apology" and "aggression and colonial rule" in his speech in August.

According to reports from the Japanese media on June 19, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party plans to set up a research team to scrutinize the post-WWII Allied occupation of Japan and post-war tribunals, as the rulings of the trials have been deemed by party members to "include faulty views on history." It is a move that might well be taken by the international community as representing a direct challenge to the present world order.

So in light of all this, can we conclude beyond any shadow of a doubt that Abe has changed his mind? Only time will tell.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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