Calls for their removal from enshrinement at Yasukuni have fallen on deaf ears. The Yasukuni priesthood, which has held full autonomy over the shrine since the official separation of church from state imposed in Japan’s 1947 Constitution, claims that enshrinement is irreversible.
China and South Korea in particular interpret Japan’s continued worship of war criminals as a refusal to recognize its history of aggression and are predictably infuriated at what they view as acts of official defiance against accepting accountability for past crimes. For Japanese government ministers to continue the shrine visits, whether for personal inclinations or campaign boosting, is a short-sighted disservice to their nation’s wellbeing.
First, Yasukuni visits impose concrete and often immediate political and economic costs. Visits by top Japanese cabinet officials to Yasukuni this April renewed and intensified anti-Japanese protests and industry boycotts in China, along with the cancellation of planned meetings with Korean and Chinese ministers.
In addition to promoting much-needed economic rapport, distance from the shrine would also aid Mr. Abe’s government in countering any Chinese efforts to cite Japan’s historical misdeeds to sway international opinion on ongoing territorial disputes. The two nations are currently locked in a dispute over claims to several islands in the East China Sea.
By taking even gradual steps to assess its history more honestly, Japan would remove Chinese leverage while simultaneously increasing its own. The world has not forgotten that China itself has no shortage of problems reconciling with history, and the more squarely Japan can face its past, the less ammunition remains in China’s grasp.
More broadly, quarantining Yasukuni from politics would improve general cooperation and negotiation with Japan’s neighbors. China and South Korea both nurse old wounds that show no signs of healing, and Yasukuni provides the salt. Historical grievances among these countries run too deep for any quick solution, but the discontinuation of shrine visits by high-ranking Japanese politicians can certainly avoid further inflammation.