It has long seemed certain that Shinzo Abe, who has earned a reputation for historical revisionism, would distinguish his second stint as Japan’s prime minister by taking on his country’s past. He did much to validate that assumption. With alarming frequency, he reopened Japan’s darkest chapters—the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women” and the massacre in Nanjing, China, during World War II—in an attempt to question the legitimacy of the accepted historical narrative. In December 2013, he angered China, South Korea, and the United States by visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s fallen soldiers, including those convicted of war crimes. Then he convened a government panel to reexamine Japan’s landmark apology to the comfort women. For good measure, he attempted to fudge the history of this crime by requesting changes to a 1996 UN human rights report on wartime brothels and to U.S. history textbooks. The results—damaged relations with allies, partners, and adversaries alike—were predictable.
But Abe has recently made a welcome pivot to a more conciliatory and constructive brand of nationalism. Last December, after decades of grinding negotiations that seemed to be heading nowhere, Japan agreed to pay South Korea approximately $9 million to establish a foundation to support former comfort women. And Abe’s planned visit to Pearl Harbor next week alongside U.S. President Barack Obama is the latest sign of that shift.
More than anything, this remarkable about-face has been driven by unfavorable geopolitical winds in East Asia. With an increasingly assertive China in the East China and South China Seas and an emboldened North Korea at Japan’s doorstep, it is now more important than ever for Tokyo to work closely with its allies and partners in Washington and Seoul. Abe’s efforts to dull his nationalist impulses may not reflect a personal conversion, but they do demonstrate a shrewd and pragmatic understanding of Japan’s current geopolitical reality. Once seemingly intent on turning history into an
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