Dozens of reporters are working the North Korean nuclear test story. Dozens more, some on double duty, are covering Abe Shinzo’s tour through China and South Korea. I won’t try to duplicate or aggregate their work, but some of the key links appear at right in my Google Reader feed.
But there’s something going on behind the headlines that we shouldn’t overlook. Some commentators are hailing the current “fence-mending” tour and the region’s unanimity against North Korea’s actions as a sign of a new era in Japan’s relations with its neighbors. Maybe, but the jury is still out on the Abe administration.
When pressed by an opposition politician, Abe said he would not change the Murayama Statement of 1995, in which Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi expressed regret for Japan’s military actions during World War II on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. “I have no plans of creating a new statement that would rewrite what the 1995 statement said,” Abe said. “That statement was approved by the then Cabinet so it still lives on with my Cabinet.”
But just because Abe won’t redress the Murayama Statement doesn’t mean he won’t step on diplomatic toes. What’s certain is that he is being careful not to cross China and South Korea early on. During Abe’s visit to China, Hu Jintao raised Yasukuni then said obliquely, “I hope you will work to remove political obstacles.” Far from resolutely conciliatory, this statement echoes statements by Hu and others in the Chinese government during the Koizumi era, when phrases like “responsible view of history” were code, meaning, “Don’t go to Yasukuni, Jun!”
But the visit did go smoothly, and the leaders’ agreement that a North Korean nuclear test would be “unacceptable” dominated the agenda. Since the nuclear test apparently occurred while Abe was in the air on the way to South Korea, the nuclear issue—and the corresponding unanimity—promises to dominate Abe’s time there. There is little potential for the emergence of Japan–Asia disputes on this trip, but that doesn’t mean it’s clear sailing forever.
Asahi Shimbun notes that Abe has a history of differing statements on the Murayama Statement and another political statement on the “comfort women” issue:
Abe previously had been similarly vague on his own views toward Murayama’s statement. In February, when Abe was still chief Cabinet secretary, he offered a different interpretation of Japan’s actions during World War II.
“There is also the issue of how to define a war of aggression,” Abe said at a Lower House Budget Committee session. “I think the situation is one in which no set definition has been decided on by scholars.”
Abe had taken a similar path regarding the [Chief Cabinet Secretary] Kono [Yohei] statement that acknowledged the involvement of the Imperial Japanese Army in the management of brothels for “comfort women.” The  statement accompanied a report by the government on the “comfort women” issue.
In 1997, Abe joined a group of young Diet lawmakers that took issue with Japan’s history education.
At a session of the Lower House Audit Committee’s second sub-committee in May 1997, Abe criticized Kono’s statement as being based on false information.
On Thursday, Abe said his Cabinet will now inherit that statement.
Abe has already changed his historical interpretations to fit the political tides. It is therefore hard to predict what he will do in the future.