Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was interviewed Saturday.
Translated by The Washington Post.
Prime Minister Abe: I would like to thank the two of you for coming all the way to Tokyo. In this building, it used to be used previously as the prime minister’s office, and I wanted to welcome you here to this building for this interview today.
Next week, I will be visiting the United States and a meeting with President Obama is scheduled for [February] 22nd. On the 26th of December of last year, I took office for my second term as prime minister. And it is the first time ever since then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, during the occupation period, that a prime minister is taking this position for the second time with a number of years in between. In Japan, usually, once you become prime minister, you do not have a second chance. Probably the reason why that was not the case this time is because Japan is facing an increasingly challenging situation.
In particular, it’s the sluggish economy that we are facing, and also the fact that Fukushima and the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake are having a hard time in their reconstruction efforts. Also, as a result of the trust and confidence between Japan and the United States having gone through a pretty rocky period, Japan’s foreign policy clout has been declining. And the stability in Japan’s adjacent waters and in the Asia-Pacific region is being affected, with acts of provocation seen against Japan’s territory and territorial waters.
And also, the sluggish economy is creating a situation where the young people in Japan cannot cherish their desires or have prospects for their future. Also, the decline in Japan’s economic capability is resulting in a declining presence for Japan’s foreign policy as well.
Accordingly, the duties and mission that I must fulfill are pretty clear: namely, to regain a strong and robust economy, and also to restore Japan’s strong foreign policy capability.
Now, regarding the economy, I believe I have succeeded already in changing the general mood and atmosphere that was prevalent in Japan. Also, in my foreign policy agenda, I have recently visited Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, and regained the trust with Asian nations. Also, next week, I will be visiting the United States, and after a successful meeting with President Obama, I wish to demonstrate to the people in Japan, as well as overseas, that we have been able to fully restore the strong bonds and friendship between Japan and the United States under the Japan-U.S. alliance.
While we reinforce the relations with countries that share the values such as freedom, democracy, basic human rights and rule of law and expand the outer border of this “value-oriented diplomacy,” I’d like to look at the entire world with a bird’s-eye view and develop a foreign policy that can contribute to this region, as well as the world, for the Japanese economy and from a geopolitical perspective.
Question: What will it take to make your visit successful? Are their specific accomplishments you’re hoping to achieve in Washington?
Abe: Specifically, first of all, in relation to the nuclear test that has been undertaken by North Korea recently and the attempt being made by North Korea to strengthen its nuclear capability, as well as to increase its capability for missiles as a means of delivery, I wish to discuss with President Obama how we might be able to check and stop these developments, and also how we might be able to change North Korea’s policy.
In that regard, I wish to be able to make the meeting between myself and President Obama in itself a message that we can send. At the same time, I wish to make the point that in the context of the enormously changing security environment in the Asia-Pacific, I wish to mention that strengthening and reinforcing the alliance between Japan and the United States will be able to contribute to peace and stability in the region.
Regarding trade, I believe that a free trading environment would be in the national interest of Japan. I believe that we need to capture and incorporate the growth potential that we have in the Asia-Pacific region for the growth of Japan going forward. Accordingly, I also wish to discuss the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] with President Obama.
Q: What are you hoping to hear from him that would allow Japan to enter those talks, and what do you think is the earliest that you would be able to enter the talks if you do?
Abe: In my meeting with President Obama, I would say one very important point would be whether I can be convinced on whether or not Japan’s participation in the TPP will have a positive effect on the national interests of Japan. The TPP is expected to have considerable effects in various different areas in Japan, so from that perspective, after my meeting with President Obama I intend to analyze the various effects that may be expected, and also analyze the prior consultations once again. Based upon these results, I’ll decide whether or not to participate at an appropriate time. Therefore, I would say my meeting with President Obama will be important in making that decision.
Q: So participation could come before the summer election?
Abe: I am not able to say anything definite regarding the timing at the moment, but what I can say is that I have no intention of making the upper house elections a central element in my consideration of whether or not to join the TPP. I say so because the timing of the elections is something that has a bearing on the interests of the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] as a political party. But the decision on whether or not to join TPP negotiations is a matter that would have a bearing on Japan’s national interests. So I intend to make a decision based on consideration of Japan’s national interests, meaning that I wish to make the decision without considering the angle of the elections.
Q: You mentioned that not many prime ministers get a second chance. How are you different this time, and how do you think you’ve done so far in these couple of months?
Abe: During the election that just ended, and also at the time of elections for president of the LDP, the issue of the economy was one of the main topics. In that process, I advocated for a monetary policy that was somewhat different than the policy held by those in the mainstream in the Bank of Japan and in monetary policy. That has probably gained the support of those who felt we needed to do something to change the current situation. So that may have led me to be elected for the second time as president of the LDP.
Also, regarding the security environment, for instance, we were having many cases of violations made by Chinese government vessels in territorial waters of Japan, and also we were experiencing many cases where there have been intrusions into Japan’s air defense identification zone and territorial airspace. I believe, therefore, that that has attracted support for my very strong position that we should make sure to defend the Japanese territory, territorial waters and airspace with strong determination. And also, at the same time, my past track record with having made improvements in the relationship with Japan and China may have also been a factor in being reelected. It was in the first Abe administration that we started the mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests between Japan and China. And I believe all these elements together have culminated in support for me during the elections.
Q: But if I could just follow up, did you learn something from the first term, and are you different now than you were in 2006-07?
Abe: I did learn from many mistakes. First and foremost, I learned that it is important to create a wide base of support within the LDP. In forming the cabinet this time, I included almost all the members of the LDP whom I ran against during the party election for president.
Also, as a result of the lessons I learned, this time my policy priorities have become very clear. This would include first and foremost restoring a robust economy. I believe this has resulted in the strong support that I am getting from the people.
Q: A number of people comment on your strong focus on the economy but also say that in your heart, the issues of history — and how Japan is perceived historically — is very important to you, so that eventually during your prime ministership those issues are bound to come out. I wonder if you could comment on that.
Abe: Regarding what happened in the past, much like my predecessors, I believe that we caused tremendous damage and suffering to the countries of Asia. That is why Japan has been providing support and assistance to the countries of Asia even from the days when Japan was still a poor country. And I believe that the path Japan has taken has been the correct path. In the postwar years, we have attached great importance to pursuing the principles of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law. I believe that was also a correct path. That is why, as I said previously, we have been making a great effort to further promote these values.
My basic notion regarding the matter of historical recognition is basically, it’s a matter that should be left to the good hands of historians and experts. And this is a position that I have been taking consistently ever since the first Abe government. This is a point that I have been making consistently ever since my first term in office, as well as in Diet deliberations and interviews.
Q: So, if you’re going to leave it to historians, does that mean you will let the statements of 1993 and 1995 stand as is? Or should there ultimately be a review of them?
Abe: The Murayama Statement [in 1995] was issued on the 50th anniversary of the war end, and also on the 60th anniversary after World War II, Prime Minister Koizumi also issued a statement. I wish to issue a statement at an appropriate time, but as I mentioned earlier, it is my belief that politicians should not be stepping into the realm of history. Rather, politicians should be taking a future-oriented perspective, and that is the perspective from which I intend to issue a statement at the appropriate time.
Q: What does that mean, “future-oriented?”
Abe: I mean to say that Japan should speak about the role Japan should be playing in our relations with Asia.
Q: What is their larger purpose, do you think? What is China trying to achieve with what it is doing in the Senkaku Islands?
Abe: China, as a nation, is a country under the one-party rule of the Communist Party, but it has introduced the market economy. As a country that is under the one-party rule of the Communist Party, normally what they should be seeking is equality of results. And I believe it is fair to say that is probably what constitutes the legitimacy of one-party rule by the Communist Party. But as a result of introducing the market economy, China, has dropped one of its pillars of legitimacy, which was equal results for all.
This has led them to require some different pillars — one of which is high economic growth, and another of which is patriotism.
As part of their effort to seek natural resources needed for their high economic growth, I believe they are moving into the sea.
And the other pillar they are now seeking is teaching patriotism in their education. What is unfortunate, however, is that in the case of China, teaching patriotism is also teaching anti-Japanese sentiment. In other words, their education policy of teaching patriotism has become even more pronounced as they started the reform and opening policy.
In that process, in order to gain natural resources for their economy, China is taking action by coercion or intimidation, both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. This is also resulting in strong support from the people of China, who have been brought up through this educational system that attaches emphasis on patriotism.
This, however, is also a dilemma faced by China. That is to say, the mood and atmosphere created by the education in China attaching importance on patriotism — which is in effect focusing on anti-Japanese sentiment — is in turn undermining their friendly relationship with Japan and having an adverse effect on its economic growth. And the Chinese government is well aware of this.
Q: Okay, so if you are going to follow this theory through, it means the problem in China is very ingrained. How does Japan counter that, and do you see any solution to the maritime issue, and more broadly, between Japan and China in their overall relationship?
Abe: What is important, first of all, is that their leaders as well as business leaders recognize how deeply ingrained this issue is. Because without having this recognition, they will not be able to find a solution that can produce results. In this context, I wish to make the point that without economic growth, they will not be able to control the 1.3 billion people in China under the one-party rule by the Communist Party.
What is important, first and foremost, is to make them realize that they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation. Accordingly, for the first time in 11 years, I have increased our defense budget, as well as the budget for the Japan coast guard. It is important for us to have them recognize that it is impossible to try to get their way by coercion or intimidation. In that regard, the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as the U.S. presence, would be critical.
I believe it will be important to establish rules for ensuring freedom of the sea, not only in the East China Sea, but also including the South China Sea.
Regarding the Senkaku Islands, which is under the valid control of Japan, we need to make them recognize that that current status of Japan’s valid control cannot be changed by coercion or intimidation. Such behavior is going to have an effect on their economic activity at the end of the day, because it will lead to losing the confidence of the international community which will result in less investments in China. I believe it is fully possible to have China to change their policy once they gain that recognition.
Now, while Japan is also gaining profit through our investments in China, China is also enjoying an increase in jobs of 10 million or so as a result of investments being made by Japan in China. Obviously when there is greater risk, Japan’s investment will start to drop sharply, and I believe it would be important for them to realize that.
Q: If I could just come back to next week one last time, I think the United States over the last years has been frustrated by the frequent change of leadership here. I wonder if you think this will mark a reset in relations, and will you be able to tell President Obama that you’ll be around longer than one year?
Abe: After I stepped down from my first term as prime minister, there have been two LDP administrations and also three DPJ administrations who eventually stepped down. In my case, I had no choice but to resign because of some health problems. This is a condition I used to have for quite some time back, but with the development of a spectacular new drug, I have been able to totally recover and improve my health. So, physically speaking, I should be able to continue in my current position for a considerable number of years.
Including myself, there have been six prime ministers that have stepped down after one year, and the tendency is seen that the approval rating that was high at the beginning starts to decline after about a month. Whereas this time, fortunately, approval ratings have been considerably increased for two months in a row, and some results show over 70 percent at the moment. So I would consider that it’s important to maintain such a high approval rating.
Of course, it will be very difficult to maintain the current approval rating, but I do not intend to be consumed with approval ratings or be taken over by them. But rather, I would say, it would be important to have a very stable management of policy, and in that regard I would say it would be very important to be successful in the upcoming upper house elections to take place this summer.