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What to make of Mr Abe and his visit to Yasukuni

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In Brief

Four days ago, Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, paid a surprise official visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial which enshrines Japan's war dead including 14 Class-A war criminals in Tokyo.


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The immediate effect has been to greatly elevate political tensions in Northeast Asia and to raise deep anxieties about his reliability as the leader of the United States’ major alliance partner in the Pacific. The US response was low-key but crystal clear. The United States ‘is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours‘.

For many Japanese, Yasukuni Shrine is simply a religious site meant for honouring the nation’s 2.5 million war dead. But it also is steeped in controversy, both at home and abroad. Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, and his successor, Akihito, quietly boycotted visiting the shrine after then head priest, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, secretly enshrined war criminals there in 1978. A war museum on the grounds of the shrine justifies Japan’s invasions of Korea and China in the name of freeing Asia from imperialism, with no mention of Japan’s wartime atrocities, such as the rape of Nanking or frontline use of sex slaves. When prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited in the shrine 1985, the international outrage was so strong that no other prime minister visited for another 11 years, until Ryutaro Hashimoto paid a visit in 1996. Junichiro Koizumi visited every year during his prime ministership, between 2001 and 2006, and although they were supposed to be non-official, these visits caused outrage in China and a sharp downturn in China-Japan relations that severed high-level bilateral political exchanges throughout the entire period.

In his first stint as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni, a strategy that was credited with repairing the relationship with China after its nadir during the Koizumi years. But it is clear that this restraint was not in his heart. Abe repeatedly said he regretted not visiting the shrine during his first term as prime minister. In October 2012, two months before his election to the prime ministership for a second time, he made a ritual offering at the shrine. At the time he was leader of the LDP opposition  that was expected to take power in the near future. However, he sent his aides and cabinet ministers over the past year for important anniversaries and his second in charge, deputy prime minister Taro Aso, for the spring festival.

During their visit to Tokyo last October, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel paid respects at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, a tomb for Japan’s unknown war dead, in a move widely seen as a message to Abe that there are alternatives to Yasukuni. While Abe had refrained from going to Yasukuni until last Thursday, the visits of his cabinet ministers invited protests from China and South Korea each time.

In a statement after the visit, Abe said that his intention was to ‘express feelings of respect to those who had lost their lives in the service of their country’  and that he ‘is determined to create an age in which people are never made to suffer again from the calamity of war’. He also said that he had ‘no intention of hurting the feelings of the people of China or South Korea. Putting our hands together to pray for comfort in the next world for the spirits of the war dead is a common stance for leaders around the world’. Abe also paid homage at Chinreisha, another shrine at Yasukuni which is dedicated to all war dead, including foreigners regardless of nationality.

But why do it now? And are his intentions so put plausible, given the baggage that a Yasukuni visit carries?

On the second question, the experts say no: Chinreisha is part and parcel of the whole package and the stop-over there does nothing to ameliorate the hurt the visit causes to the former Japanese colonies.

On the first question, historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki notes in one of this week’s two leads: ‘The timing of Abe’s Yasukuni visit is significant. Rather than choosing one of the traditionally important days on the Shrine’s calendar, Abe chose to make his symbolic gesture on 26 December — the first anniversary of his own return to power. The visit, in other words, is all about Shinzo Abe, his ideology and his ambitions’.

Morris-Suzuki notes that Abe’s first prime ministership was marked by economic stagnation and corruption scandals leading to the resignation of several of his ministers. He himself was plagued by ill-health, and stepped down after staying in power for precisely one year and one day. She argues that Abe has come back with a determination to stamp his mark on history and to push through his long-cherished right-wing agenda. Abe is a staunch believer in the values that the shrine represents, and leads a cross-party group of parliamentarians known as the ‘Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership’. Once he was swept back to power with a large majority in the Diet, Abe’s supporters assumed that he would make the visit. His core aim is to ‘escape from the post-war regime’ — to reverse the liberalizing reforms introduced to Japanese politics and society in the wake of the Asia-Pacific War. ‘His visit to the Yasukuni Shrine’, Morris-Suzuki concludes, ‘is a very explicit expression of that aim’.

Former top Japanese diplomat, Kazuhiko Togo laments that Abe’s explanation of the visit did not even mention the issue of war-responsibility and gives an ‘impression of self-righteousness and one-sidedness’. At one stroke, Togo points out, Abe has united China, South Korea and Russia on the Japan history issue and the list of disillusioned friends in Asia and the Pacific, that includes the United States, will grow longer.

Until recently, Abe has enjoyed high popularity among the Japanese electorate because of his promise to restore growth in the Japanese economy. His popularity has plummeted since the introduction of a new law on state secrets to which 70 per cent of the Japanese electorate are opposed. Although Abe’s nationalist political base is small, the reaction from China and South Korea to the Yasukuni Shrine visit will probably foster, even among many non-supporters in Japan, a sense of interference in Japan’s national affairs and re-boot his domestic support base in the shorter term. These developments do not bode well for the hard follow-through needed on economic policy. Confronted by doubt about the delivery of comprehensive economic reform, nationalism wins the day.

The escalation of tensions between Japan on the one side and China and South Korea on the other was predictable. Moderate voices on both sides will be muted for some time. In inflaming tensions, the stance of Abe has embarrassed Japan’s allies and friends and damaged diplomatic assets. This is a time, as Washington has done, for telling Japan so, politely but firmly. US diplomacy, needed more than ever, will be critical to a sensible outcome in the medium term.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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