When Shinzo Abe met Dick Cheney in Japan this week, a special kind of chemistry was probably in effect. The hawkish Japanese prime minister and the bellicose US vice president, self-described friends, have more in common than declining poll numbers. They both have war on their minds.
What we have on the one side is Mr. Abe, a historical revisionist, glorifying the losers of the last world war to reshape the past. On the other side you have Mr. Cheney, a hard-line unilateralist who has been one of the biggest planners and defenders of the American-led war in Iraq.
Cheney visited Japan this week, according to the White House, to thank officials there for "their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan." Japan has sent noncombat troops to Iraq and has supplied logistical support in Afghanistan. But even as backing for the Iraq war continues to slip at home, Cheney arrived in a Japan roiled by its own debate about rising militarism.
The latest example came when Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma suggested last month that the war in Iraq was a mistake. He was criticized roundly by Abe's people, and Cheney then snubbed the defense chief. The message: Friends don't criticize friends.
There was no rational reason for Japan to get entangled in Iraq, and there's even less reason to become involved in Iran. However, Cheney appears bent on whipping up support for a reluctant Japan to continue to follow the Bush administration's lead in the war-torn Middle East. In refusing to meet with the defense minister, Cheney seemed to be saying that a silent nod to the wise is sufficient.
But the Japanese can say no, and why shouldn't they? Is it really in the interest of the Japanese people to bind their fate to the declining fortunes of the Bush-Cheney team? Or might this be a good time, as opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa belatedly suggested a few weeks ago, to point out the obvious folly of US ways, as a friend would, helping a friend? Japan has yet to finish apologizing for the mess it made the last time it went to war, so why drag it into a new one?
The US occupation of post-World War II Japan, along with a unique "peace constitution," was designed to make a former warrior nation allergic to war, and it largely succeeded. It is not only Japan's neighbors who get upset when Japanese pols visit the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals among the war dead; in fact, more than half of those polled in Japan are against such visits as well. From time to time, US voices, such as former Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, remind us that official visits to a shrine that makes a mockery of Pearl Harbor and Nanjing do not serve US-Japan interests, either.
Likewise, Japan should listen carefully to what other American statesmen have been saying. A motion by Rep. Mike Honda (D) of California calling for an apology on the oft-denied issue of Imperial Japan's "sex slaves" and other wartime injustices, is not bullying but a nudge – from a friend to a friend – saying we need to agree on basic facts for the relationship to go forward.
The widespread Japanese commitment to peace, after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, extends to an understandable abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Yet military analysts say that US ships armed with nuclear weapons routinely pull into Japanese ports such as Yokosuka and Okinawa – making a sham of Japan's "three nonnuclear principles" (not possessing, producing, or permitting nuclear weapons into the country).
Cheney took part in a photo-op aboard the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk during his visit – an insensitive move that might well come to be regretted as a "mission accomplished" moment for the vice president. Tokyo's flamboyant mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, had primed the public by asserting – without apparent evidence – that the Kitty Hawk is nuclear-equipped.
Instead of posing on the carrier, Cheney should have taken the time to hear what Mr. Kyuma and other Japanese critics of the Iraq war had to say.
• Philip J. Cunningham is a professor in the social studies department at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. ©2007 The Los Angeles Times Syndicate.