TOKYO (Reuters) - Outspoken Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso risks chilling ties with China and South Korea as the Asian neighbours grapple with the world financial crisis if he mishandles a domestic row over comments about World War Two.
Japan’s opposition is hoping to use a furore over former air force general Toshio Tamogami’s rejection of a landmark 1995 apology for wartime aggression by Tokyo to erode support for Aso ahead of an election that must be held by next September.
While Aso has said he backs the 1995 apology, a debate over wartime responsibility could be tricky for the prime minister, who has had links with an ultra-conservative lobby group and has made comments that appeared to whitewash Japan’s often-brutal 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
“Clearly, he is among the conservative elite who believe Japan fought a war of liberation and that colonialism in Korea was not such a bad thing,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “His perspective on history is rather inconvenient at this moment.”
Still, analysts expect Aso to steer a pragmatic course that limits friction with Beijing as well as Seoul to protect deep economic ties and avoid ruffling diplomatic feathers ahead of a planned December summit with Chinese and South Korea leaders.
“People realise relations with China are absolutely crucial and way too important to hold hostage to history,” Kingston said.
“Aso would step on some real big toes if he took a strong nationalist stance.”
Tamogami will testify in parliament on Tuesday after being fired last month over a published essay denying Japan was an aggressor in World War Two and rejecting the verdicts of an Allied military tribunal that convicted Japanese wartime leaders as war criminals. The trial ended 60 years ago on Wednesday.
Such views are shared by many conservative Japanese politicians and scholars, but contradict the government stance as reflected in a 1995 apology by then-prime minister Tomoichi Murayama for suffering caused by Tokyo’s wartime aggression.
The main opposition Democratic Party, which is pushing for a snap election in hopes of ousting Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is targeting government handling of the affair, arguing that civilian control of the military is not working.
Support for Aso has sunk since he took office in September and surveys show the ruling bloc could lose if a poll were held soon, so further proof of mismanagement would hardly help.
Tamogami was fired from his post after his essay, which won top prize in a contest sponsored by a hotel operator, was published on the firm’s website (http://www.apa.co.jp report/index.html).
Critics are angry that the 60-year-old general was allowed to retire and receive his pension payout, and questions are being raised because he wrote a similar essay for an in-house ministry magazine last year.
Aso will try to avoid public sympathy for Tamogami’s stance, analysts said, though his record of gaffes leaves room for doubt.
“Probably there will not be that much damage ... unless Aso goofs and says something sympathetic with the ideological cause,” said Yoshihide Soeya, a professor at Tokyo’s Keio University.
“That would be very harmful.”
How the saga plays out also depends on the stance taken by China, which has condemned the general’s essay but noted the steps Tokyo has taken in response.
Most Japanese may not share Tamogami’s extreme views but many feel their country has been unfairly singled out for blame, and resent Chinese attempts to play history as a diplomatic card.
“If it develops into a China issue, then the government becomes somewhat hostage to domestic emotionalism,” Soeya said. But he added: “I think China will remain quiet”.