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

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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.
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