The Price of Abe's Pragmatism

It Has Hurt Japan's Moral Standing

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference in Tokyo, Japan, December 2016. Alexander Zemlianichenko / REUTERS

Over the past few years, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has scored a string of foreign policy successes that have led analysts such as Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to dub him a shrewd pragmatist. In 2015, Abe secured a historic agreement with South Korea, in return for an apology and restitution for World War II era “comfort women.” (Japan’s kidnapping of thousands women and forcing them into sex slavery during the war has regularly harmed relations since it became public in the late 1980s.) He also hosted then-U.S. President Barack Obama at a commemoration in Hiroshima, in which Obama paid respects to the victims of the atomic bomb, a first for a sitting U.S. president. Abe returned the favor by visiting Pearl Harbor, “a remarkable about-face” that the media dubbed yet another demonstration of his political pragmatism.

Abe’s actions, along with his willingness to court controversial leaders such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. President Donald Trump, seemed to demonstrate his willingness to set aside his personal beliefs for politically unattractive short-term moves in service of his long-term economic and security agenda. Abe remains a staunch conservative, believing that Japan was forced into WWII, that Japan’s constitution was forced on the country following the war and thus is in need of revising, and that Japan needs to reassert its strength in the international arena. His softening on historical issues is tied to his need to secure an economic recovery and build regional relationships to balance an increasingly assertive China. But his willingness to ignore the liabilities of courting these leaders may not be a sign of pragmatism, but of dependency.

Abe's willingness to ignore the liabilities of courting these leaders may not be a sign of pragmatism, but of dependency.


After Trump’s surprise victory last November, analysts and politicians such as former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage proclaimed that populism and

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