In this space last Sunday, I highlighted House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to address a joint session of Congress. As I pointed out, never before has a Japanese Prime Minister been accorded such an honor. Yet of all Japan’s post-1945 Prime Ministers, Abe would appear to be the least deserving. After all, even by the normal standards of Japanese politics, he is notorious for his double-talk – and indeed outright falsehoods – on Japan’s World War II atrocities. As recently as last Tuesday, he made a ritual offering to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates, among other people, some of Japan’s most notorious war criminals.As I suggested, Boehner’s rationale undoubtedly reflects in part the fact that the Japanese corporate system, via U.S.-based subsidiaries, is an important source of funding for the Republican party. That said, on further consideration and in view of various developments in the meantime, I sense there is a deeper game here. In fact we are being treated to an elaborate piece of political theater. It is a play in four acts.
Act 1. Tokyo’s dupes and stooges have been preparing us for a disappointing performance by Abe. Supposedly he will be parsimonious and ambiguous in dealing with Japan’s past. As Jeff Kingston, a Tokyo-based political scientist, has pointed out, the bar is being set low. Thus anything that Abe says that goes beyond the minimum will seem like a diplomatic coup for Boehner.
Act 2. Abe will surprise on the up side. Talking frankly, he will impress, if not charm, Congress.
Act 3. Boehner will be hailed as a political genius for engineering such a makeover.
Act 4. The resulting euphoria will help propel acceptance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade deal that Boehner is pushing and that promises to reward Japan more than probably any other nation.
Basically what seems to be going on here is a form of a bait and switch. Although Abe will be judged on how he deals with the past, what matters to him — and to the Japanese economic system he represents – is the future. His record suggests he is an Orwellian shape shifter who is prepared to do anything to advance his agenda. A few minutes of pro-forma contrition on a Washington podium will be water off a duck’s back.
In reality, of course, the TPP deserves to be assessed on its own merits, not 0n how effectively Abe assuages resentments about Japan’s imperial past. The reality is that the TPP promises to perpetuate an unbalanced U.S.-Japan trade relationship. All the evidence of the last forty years is that Japan treats its market opening commitments as “optional.” Perhaps the most obvious illustration is the rice market: in the mid 1990s Japan undertook to open its market to American-grown rice (not least japonica, the variety favored by Japanese consumers and one in which American farmers are highly efficient). The New York Times gave the opening big-news treatment. It gave less attention to the result: no change. With the exception of a few stores favored by Western families, American rice is pretty much non-existent in Japan.
One aspect of this drama has already been expertly stage-managed: the date. Abe will address Congress on April 29. This is a characteristically Japanese touch and a deft one: Emperor Hirohito was born on April 29 1901