It's been a rocky six months for Shinzo Abe. Ever since he became Japan's prime minister in September, he's struggled to buoy his plummeting popularity amid mishaps and scandals. But this month he got help from an unexpected quarter: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who came to Tokyo to warm the two countries' frosty relations. Wen's visit, payback for a trip to Beijing Abe made shortly after coming to office, has boosted Abe's approval rating by 4.3 percent in the past month (to 44.2 percent, according to the Kyodo news agency). And it points to the one way Abe may be able to bail out his government. Though he's failed to articulate any sort of coherent domestic program, an increasingly assertive foreign policy may prove Abe's salvation.
At least, he seems to hope so. Abe plans to build on Wen's visit by heading to Washington and Camp David next week, where he'll showcase his friendship with George W. Bush and reaffirm the U.S.-Japan alliance. Next, he'll fly to the Middle East, the biggest source of Japan's oil, where he'll stop in several gulf kingdoms and Egypt. Coming on the heels of a landmark defense treaty Tokyo signed with Australia on March 13, the moves suggest Abe is on something of a roll, and before his departure, he granted NEWSWEEK an exclusive interview on his new foreign policy (following story). Despite his successes, however, international affairs could still prove his undoing. The same principles that have fueled his victories have also led to some of the worst controversies. Abe, at heart, is a conservative Japanese nationalist eager to reassert his country's standing. But the world may not be ready for this, at least not unless Abe deftly navigates very tricky waters.
Witness the storm he has caused over the "comfort women" who were forced to serve in brothels patronized by the Imperial armed forces during World War II. The long-simmering issue came to the fore this year when the U.S. Congress began deliberating whether to demand that Tokyo apologize. Abe responded by attempting to minimize Japan's responsibility and seemed to cast doubt on an earlier apology issued in 1993. This led to international outcry, and on March 11, Abe—clearly hoping to make the issue go away before he left for Washington—said his government would stand by the 1993 statement.
That apology might help, but Japan's wartime record remains a major irritant in Asia's international affairs. The deep freeze in Sino-Japanese relations, for example, was a result of visits Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, paid to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 executed Class-A war criminals (in addition to 2.5 million Japanese war dead). Abe has defused the issue by simply declining to go without making any promises one way or another. Yet he could prove to be far more vulnerable on the history front than many of his predecessors. For one thing, he's closely aligned to the historical revisionists in his own Liberal Democratic Party. He was a founding member of a group of parliamentarians that has pushed to downplay Japan's wartime crimes in school textbooks and to emphasize "patriotic education."
More to the point, Abe is a revisionist himself—or at least used to be. He caused a firestorm back in 2001 when, as a senior Koizumi cabinet member, he was accused of pressuring Japan's public broadcasting company to tone down a program blaming the military for the comfort-women system. He has also suggested in the past that he rejects the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Even if Abe has since moved away from such views, his power base still holds to them, which could limit his room for maneuvering. As recently as February, meanwhile, one of his own senior aides suggested that Abe might visit Yasukuni after all. And his foreign minister, Taro Aso, proposed last year that the emperor himself should go. Either event would immediately derail the Sino-Japanese rapprochement.
The second problem Abe faces lies in his declared intention to pursue a foreign policy guided by "democratic values." Such an assertive, values-oriented agenda—which rhetorically echoes the Bush administration's—would position Japan as a model for and a potential ally of other democratic countries in the region, such as India and Australia, and an alternative to the authoritarian China. Sounds good. But setting the moral bar so high—defining Japan as a "beautiful nation," in Abe's words—will make it even more critical that Tokyo fess up to its history. "If you're talking about pursuing human rights in various countries on one hand, and on the other you're denying that the Japanese wartime government violated human rights, it makes you look hypocritical," notes David Fouse of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. Abe's own missteps on the comfort-women issue suggest he has a long way to go before he can start capitalizing on Japan's soft power.
Yet Abe's delicate dilemma—how to make amends for the past without alienating his base—also offers a major opportunity. For one thing, as a conservative, Abe may have the standing to issue an apology his more moderate predecessors could not afford. For another, Japan is not the only country in the region to twist history for political purposes (sidebar). It would therefore gain enormous credibility if it made a clean break—for example, by opening up still-secret war archives to researchers around the world.
That may be expecting too much. But some commentators have suggested that Abe simply could sidestep wartime questions, much as he has avoided the Yasukuni issue, leaving history to the historians. Doing so while standing by past apologies might prove a pragmatic step on the path toward the "normal country" Abe wants Japan to become. Already there are signs that Japan's neighbors would embrace such a country. In his speech to the Japanese Parliament, Prime Minister Wen noted that Chinese and Japanese alike had suffered as a result of the war and vowed to build new ties that would focus on the future "with history as a mirror." If Japan can rise to the challenge, surely everyone will benefit.