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A Conversation With Shinzo Abe

By Lally Weymouth
Sunday, April 22, 2007

President Bush will welcome new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House and Camp David this week. The first Japanese head of government born after 1945, Abe is a staunch nationalist who has aroused controversy with his dismissive remarks about "comfort women" -- women forced to serve the Japanese army as prostitutes during World War II. Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth sat down with Abe in Tokyo to discuss issues ranging from changing Japan's constitution to forging a new relationship with China.

What do you hope to accomplish in Washington?

I had the pleasure of meeting President Bush last year in Hanoi, and I am looking forward to seeing him again. I believe the Japan-U.S. alliance is the only indispensable alliance, and I'd like to use my visit to further strengthen this relationship.

How do you feel about the recent agreement on the North Korean nuclear program that was reached in the Six Party T alks?

I welcome this agreement, but what is important is that North Korea actually act in a concrete manner to abandon nuclear weapons in accordance with that agreement. It is also important that we make the North Koreans understand that if they do not act accordingly, none of the problems they are facing today will be resolved and the situation they find themselves in will only get worse.

Do you feel sidelined [in the talks] because the Japanese government has said it will not participate in the U.S.-led deal until the issue of abductees [as many as 17 Japanese were abducted by North Koreans in the 1970s to teach Japanese language and culture to their security services] is resolved?

On this question, Japan and the United States are fully coordinated. I discussed this matter on the phone with President Bush. It is a matter to be discussed at the North Korea-Japan working group. To the extent that the issue remains unresolved, there will be no normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea, and therefore there will be no attainment of the objectives of the Six Party Talks.

All the participating countries in the Six Party Talks understand that if there is no progress on the abduction issue, Japan will not participate in energy assistance for North Korea.

What would you define as progress? It appears that the United States wants to go ahead with this deal.

At this moment North Korea is not responding in good faith at all. It is for us to judge if there is progress, not the North Koreans.

Last week the Chinese premier came to Tokyo -- the first visit of a senior Chinese official in seven years. How do you see relations with China now and what came out of the visi t of Premier Wen Jiabao?

Since I took office as prime minister last September, I have met with [Chinese] President Hu Jintao twice, during my visit to China and also during the APEC summit. And I've had three meetings with Premier Wen Jiabao. On my visit to China last year, I agreed with the Chinese leadership that we together shall build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. There are numerous issues that can be covered -- the environment, energy, North Korea, East Asian development, U.N. reform and others. I believe that our cooperation on these fronts will benefit not just Japan and China but Asia and the entire world.

People say that you would like to have a more robust military. Will you aim to reinterpret the constitution to have a military that could take part in peacekeeping operations, that could fire back in Iraq?

This year the Japan Defense Agency was upgraded to the Ministry of Defense. And we believe that this is a reflection of the maturing of democracy in this country and also the confidence of the people in civilian control.

The security environment surrounding Japan and the entire world has undergone major change. There has been proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the fight against terrorism and regional conflicts arising here and there. At the same time, it is expected of Japan to make increasing contributions to various international challenges.

I think it is the responsibility of anyone involved in politics to always think of what Japan can do to contribute more to the peace and stability not just of Japan and the region but of the entire world.

Does that mean you want Japan to be a normal country and to have a military? Do you want to reinterpret the constitution or amend Article 9 [which prohibits a standing Japanese military]?

It has been more than 60 years since the constitution was put in place. There are provisions in the constitution that no longer suit the times. Since the constitution was promulgated, we've seen the emergence of new values, such as privacy, the environment and so on, which need to be incorporated.

This constitution was drafted while Japan was under occupation. I believe it is important that we Japanese write a constitution for ourselves that would reflect the shape of the country we consider desirable in the 21st century.

In other words, not have an American-drafted constitution?

The basic philosophy that is embedded in the current constitution, such as sovereignty residing in the people, basic human rights and pacifism -- these elements are already incorporated in the draft constitution that we would like to propose. But the important thing is that we write the constitution ourselves. Because the constitution is the basic law of the land.

Your comments on "comfort women" caused an outcry in the United States. Do you really believe that the Imperial Army had no program to force Korean, Chinese and other women to provide sexual services to the Japanese Imperial Army?

I have to express sympathy from the bottom of my heart to those people who were taken as wartime comfort women. As a human being, I would like to express my sympathies, and also as prime minister of Japan I need to apologize to them.

The 20th century was a century in which human rights were infringed upon in numerous parts of the world, and Japan also bears responsibility in that regard. I believe that we have to look at our own history with humility and think about our responsibility.

But that's not what you said originally in the Diet. You said that there was no evidence.

I wasn't the first to make the remarks that I made.

You were not the first to say that there wasn't evidence of links to the Imperial Army?

What I was saying is that I wasn't the first to comment on the facts.

But the main point is, do you now believe that the Imperial Army forced these women into this situation, and as prime minister of Japan do you apologize to them, and do you believe the Kono Statement [a partial 1993 acknowledgment by a Japanese official named Kono of Japan's responsibility for the brothels]?

My administration has been saying all along that we continue to stand by the Kono Statement. We feel responsible for having forced these women to go through that hardship and pain as comfort women under the circumstances at the time.

Can you give me one or two examples of economic reforms you want to bring about as prime minister?

We have expounded two basic pillars to enable Japan to grow in the future. We will deregulate to promote innovation, and we plan on establishing free trade arrangements and economic partnership arrangements with various countries.

We'd also like to facilitate foreign direct investment in Japan. Our plan is to double FDI over a five-year period. We will start implementing rules in May that will enable triangular mergers to be implemented in Japan. It's been said that the government in general has been active in impeding economic activity. My administration -- the [previous] administration also worked on this -- will present to the parliament a bill for reform of the civil service.

I understand that you're going to the Middle East after Washington. How do you see the danger of nuclear proliferation in Iran? What do you hope to accomplish on your Middle East trip?

Japan relies heavily on the Middle East for much of its energy supplies. Japan has a vital interest in the peace and stability of the Middle East. During my visit to the region I would like to discuss with the leaders of the countries there how we can best secure peace and stability -- especially with regards to Iran. Japan today enjoys good relations with Iran and would like to exercise whatever influence it has on the Iranians to try and work toward a peaceful resolution of the [nuclear] issue. We would like to appeal to the Iranians to respond to the concerns of the international community.

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