U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Ujibashi bridge in Ise, Mie prefecture, Japan, May 26, 2016.
Toru Hanai / Reuters

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 obstacle, Abe now sees it as a political bargaining chip.

Undoubtedly, Japan’s landmark agreement with South Korea last December helped smooth the way for the signing last month of the previously rejected but much-needed General Security of Military Information Agreement, an intelligence-sharing pact that will enable Seoul and Tokyo to monitor the growing North Korean threat and tighten their trilateral approach to Pyongyang with Washington.

And the timing of Abe’s Pearl Harbor visit this year is particularly auspicious. Donald Trump’s well-documented questioning of the wisdom and value of the U.S.-Japanese alliance sent Abe scrambling to Trump Tower just over a week after Trump’s victory to meet with the president-elect; Abe was the first foreign head of government to do so. On the heels of this bold move, Abe is now using the trip to Pearl Harbor, during which he will visit the USS Arizona Memorial, which commemorates those killed during the surprise Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, to remind Trump of the closeness of the United States and Japan and of their record of overcoming tragedy to work toward peace and prosperity in Asia over the last 70 years. The visit will also signal that, in a tumultuous East Asia, Japan stands resolutely with the United States. Obama may have orchestrated the United States’ so-called pivot to Asia, but now, with the ascendance of a president-elect who favors U.S. retrenchment, Abe is trying to keep Washington’s feet firmly planted there.

There are a number of lessons that can be drawn from Abe’s transformation from historical revisionist to pragmatic nationalist. First, one need not be paralyzed by history. On the contrary, the ability to face it can help advance a country’s larger strategic objectives. Paradoxically, the softening of Abe’s nationalist stance may help him mollify his foreign and domestic critics as he continues to pursue his ultimate nationalist aim: the revitalization of Japan’s armed forces via revision of its constitution.

A second lesson is that facing history can spark genuine understanding and reconciliation between peoples. Geopolitical aims aside, that is a worthwhile goal in itself. Many of the Hiroshima survivors believe that Obama’s historic visit to the city last May was healing. Shigeaki Mori, a historian who was just a young boy when the bomb blast threw him off a bridge on his way to school, wept as Obama embraced him. Sunao Tsuboi, whose entire body was burned during the explosion, said, “I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter. I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.… I would like to join hands with each other through the power of reason and beyond hatred.”

It is not surprising, then, that Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor has been warmly welcomed by prominent U.S. veterans’ groups. Joseph Chenelly, the executive director of AMVETS (American Veterans), said, “It is a healing trip, demonstrating the strength and importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Whatever his personal beliefs, Abe has raised a finger to the blustering geopolitical winds and decided that it is better to make history than fight it. In the process, he has demonstrated that political pragmatism need not be cold. It can be done with much humanity and bring about a powerful reconciliation between nations.

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  • ZACH PRZYSTUP is Associate Director of Global Executive and Diplomatic Education at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a Nonresident Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.
  • More By Zach Przystup