Japanese Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

TOKYO – December will be a month of reconciliation for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as he meets with leaders from two countries that fought Japan in World War II: the United States and Russia.

It might seem promising that Abe is hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin and then being hosted by US President Barack Obama in such short order. But these events actually presage an uncomfortable, potentially destabilizing time for Japan – and all of East Asia.

On December 26, Abe will shake hands with Obama at Pearl Harbor – weeks after the US marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack there – to reciprocate Obama’s visit to Hiroshima’s atomic bomb sites last May. The mutual demonstration of forgiveness is meant to emphasize the values that Japan and the US now share.

But this gesture will come just ten days after Abe hosts Putin in his Yamaguchi prefecture hometown; and theirs will be a rather different sort of reconciliation. Russia is one of the few countries with which Japan never signed a peace treaty after 1945, because in the war’s final days, the Soviet Union occupied four then-Japanese islands just north of Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost main island.