Equality or Estrangement

TOKYO – Those whom the gods would destroy, they grant their wishes. Will that bit of ancient wisdom now hold for the United States and Japan?

For a half-century, the US, which wrote Japan’s postwar “peace” constitution, has pressed the Japanese to play a greater role in maintaining Asian and global stability. But now that Japan finally has a leader who agrees, the US is getting nervous, with Secretary of State John Kerry supposedly calling Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “unpredictable.”

These strains in the US-Japan relationship – surely the foundation stone of Asian stability – first became noticeable in December, when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which houses the “souls” of (among others) Class A war criminals from the Pacific War. The US has always criticized Japanese officials’ visits to the shrine, but through diplomatic channels. This time, America voiced its displeasure openly.

The US is rightly concerned about the negative impact of such pilgrimages on Japan’s relations with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea. But the harsh tone publicly adopted by President Barack Obama’s administration raised serious concerns among some in Abe’s government who question Obama’s commitment to the alliance and suspect that he was using the Yasukuni issue as a pretext to signal a weakening of America’s defense commitment.