News / Asia

Japan's Neighbors Give Cautious Welcome to New PM

Previous comments by the 54-year-old politician Yoshihiko Noda, who is poised to lead Japan’s government, are prompting concern about whether he truly desires better relations with Japan’s neighbors.

During a news conference last month, speaking as finance minister, Noda reiterated that he did not consider as criminals the 28 Japanese political and military leaders convicted by the Allied powers of top-level crimes against peace and humanity following World War II.

But this week, after being named as prime minister, Noda said the administration he is forming will adhere to the stance of past Japanese governments accepting the verdicts.

The incoming prime minister says he does not intend to brandish a certain view of history although he has answered questions on the matter previously. Noda says he clearly wants to state he hopes relations in Asia, including with China and South Korea, can be made into a win-win situation.

But Japan’s neighbors will be closely watching to see if Noda or members of his cabinet visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.  The Shinto religious site is where the spirits of those who fought on behalf of Imperial Japan are enshrined, including those convicted of war crimes by the Allied powers.

The issue is especially sensitive in China and on the Korean peninsula, parts of which were under Japan’s harsh colonization in the early 20th century.

Visits to Yasukuni by cabinet members of previous Japanese governments, led by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, infuriated Chinese and Koreans.

A professor of international politics, Son Ki-sup at the Pusan University of Foreign Studies, warns that, if the new prime minister - who is from the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan - visits the shrine while in office, relations with South Korea will suffer.

But Son says he has examined Noda’s policy statements and believes he is committed to improving Japan’s relations with its neighbors. However, he points out that the new Japanese leader’s expertise is in financial matters rather than foreign policy.

The Korea Herald, in an editorial Wednesday notes relations between Seoul and Tokyo have remained largely trouble-free since the DPJ came to power, two years ago. But the newspaper, in noting Noda’s election, recalls the mood of cooperation being repeatedly “shattered by insensitive remarks by politicians, while mutual trust remains thin because of frequent leadership changes” in Japan.

The China Daily, in a commentary published this week, comments on what it calls Noda’s previous “hawkish” remarks about history. The newspaper, known for expressing official government policy, says many Asian countries have reasons to worry about Japan's foreign policy under the new prime minister’s leadership.

Guo Dingping, the director of the Japan research study center at China’s Fudan University, is hoping Noda will steer a positive course.

The professor says he does not consider Noda’s past attitudes and opinions a harbinger of his future policies towards China.  He says he hopes the new prime minister will put forward beneficial economic and political benefits for the betterment of the bilateral relationship.

In South Korea, Son says Tokyo and Seoul need to upgrade their strategically important partnership by boosting cooperation in regional security and striking a free trade agreement.  

But the professor says, for this to happen,the South Korean government should tell the new administration in Tokyo to be objective about history, including such issues as the controversial war shrine and sensitivity concerning Japan’s territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Many analysts do not expect Noda to focus much on Asian policy. That is because he is likely to be busy with trying to revive Japan’s moribund economy and directing the recovery effort following the March 11 natural and nuclear disasters, which left 20,000 people dead or missing.

Divisive politics within Noda’s own party also are likely to distract the new prime minister. Some observers already predict the Noda administration will not last longer than those of its five predecessors -- none of which survived more than 15 months.

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