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A Freedom Agenda for Japan

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By Fred Hiatt
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

TOKYO -- Shinzo Abe likes to point out that he is Japan's first prime minister born after World War II.

That was his opening observation in his inaugural address to parliament when he took over in September. He's likely to mention it when he holds his first official meeting with President Bush later this week, in Vietnam. And he discussed it Tuesday in a conversation here with me and Post Tokyo bureau chief Anthony Faiola.

"It means I am a prime minister born and raised in the new values," he said, the values of "democracy, freedom and human rights."

The Japanese, who love nothing more than to discuss who they are as a people and where they are headed, are entering one of their periodic debates about identity, and Abe says he is determined to help shape that debate -- "to take a step forward toward a new nation-building," as he has said.

Americans tend not to pay much attention to Japan these days -- in part because the alliance is so trouble-free -- but we have a big stake in how that debate proceeds.

Japan before the war was determined to prove that a nonwhite nation could be a great power. Then, out of the war's wreckage, Japan found purpose in gracefully accepting defeat and working tirelessly to rebuild. And, as history's only victim of a nuclear attack, it found purpose in eschewing force and dedicating itself to peace. Hyper-reticent in world affairs, Japan would, if it sought to lead at all, do so only by example.

To the surprise of the Japanese, their self-image of plucky persistence and high-toned pacifism was superseded in the 1970s and '80s by the image of Japan as Number One: masters of manufacturing whose purpose was prosperity.

And then, even more unexpectedly, their economic bubble burst. The 1990s became a "lost decade" of stagnation and recession. They were unnerved by China's phenomenal rise. Their population peaked and last year began to decline. And while their economy remains the world's second-largest -- three times bigger than China's -- inevitably their share of global gross domestic product will diminish.

So now, although their economy is growing again, Japanese have lost confidence and, says Abe, need a new "country identity." But what will it be?

In our interview, Abe, the grandson of a prime minister and son of a foreign minister, spoke with almost preternatural calm, his folded hands never leaving his lap, his voice even and soft. Since taking office, he has similarly soothed the region, where Japan's neighbors, victims of its wartime aggression, feared his answer to Japan's identity crisis would be a jingoistic denial of history. Before becoming prime minister, Abe had questioned the legitimacy of the U.S.-led war crimes trials and, like his predecessor, worshiped at the shrine where convicted war criminals, among many others, are honored.

But Abe as prime minister reached out promptly to China and South Korea, in the process boosting his poll ratings at home. He has stressed the U.S.-Japanese alliance as the foundation of Japan's security. He wants to make Japan's economy and society, traditionally resistant to foreigners, more open, with "opportunity" as its watchword. And rather than insisting on peculiarly Japanese characteristics in the search for a global role, he talks about Japan and America's "shared values" -- "freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

"I believe Japan should play a role in trying to spread such values, for example in the Asian region," he told me -- though not, he emphasized, by force. He believes Japan should reach out to other democracies, such as Australia and India, even as China tries to exert influence on a very different basis.

At the same time, Abe has not shied away from his insistence that the time has come for Japan to replace its postwar peace constitution, imposed during U.S. occupation. He is pushing for a new school curriculum that would stress patriotism, which was taboo here for many years after the war. Plenty of skeptics question how long his statesmanship will endure.

One U.S. official told me he believes it's for real. "Abe may represent a new generation of Japanese nationalism, a new form of Japanese nationalism," the official said -- a healthy nationalism, in his view.

It's far from clear that he can pull it off. On one side, his right-wing supporters, who helped make him prime minister, will be pushing him toward jingoism. On another, many Japanese remain deeply reluctant for their nation to claim a leadership role in anything but commerce. North Korea's nuclear test has shaken the region, with uncertain consequences. And if the ruling party does poorly in upper-house elections next summer, Abe's term could end abruptly.

Still, he is trying to pull off something audacious. While the freedom agenda is increasingly on the defensive in Washington, it seems to have found a new champion in Tokyo.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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