Japan's Abe: Will the hawkish nationalist have to rule as a moderate?
The new prime minister ran on a platform of restoring national pride and standing up to China, but pressures in and outside the country may force him to dial back that rhetoric.
But for a newly elected prime minister keen to establish his nationalist credentials without further raising tensions withÂ Japanâ€™s Asian neighbors, the choice both had deliberate symbolism and may be a harbinger of the compromises Mr. Abe will be forced to make to his hawkish agenda â€“ at least for now.Â Â
Meiji Shrine is a popular sightseeing spot for local and overseas tourists, as well as a sacred site inÂ Japanâ€™s traditional Shinto religion, but it also honors the emperor in whose nameÂ JapanÂ waged war acrossÂ AsiaÂ in the middle of the 20th century. Â Â
It remains however, a far less controversial destination than the nearby Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Class-A war criminals are said to be interred. Public visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians provoke angry reactions from Beijing and Seoul, and have generally been avoided by prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2006.
Abe's choice "was a kind of performance to the Japanese people,"Â says Tetsuro Kato, a professor of politics atÂ WasedaÂ University. "Itâ€™s very difficult to go to Yasukuni, and itâ€™s not the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Meiji.â€ťÂ Â
In fact, the last Japanese prime minister to visit was Abe himself, during his short-lived first tenure between September 2006 and September 2007.Â
Abe returned to office in December, following a huge electoral rejection of the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Abe ran a campaign full of promises to restore national pride and stand up to an increasingly powerful China. However, the rhetoric has been toned down since his victory, as he tries to find ways to keep the right wing of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) happy while not damaging relations withÂ Japanâ€™s Asian neighbors or theÂ United States.
Many analysts predict that Abeâ€™s nationalist tendencies will be kept in check, and he will concentrate on economic policy until he can win a majority in the Upper House elections, likely to happen in July.Â
â€śIf he wins a majority in the July elections, he may decide to visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15,â€ť says Professor Kato, referring to the anniversary ofÂ Japanâ€™s defeat in World War II, a date when the nationâ€™s prime ministers have traditionally chosen to pay their respects at the shrine.Â Â
Aug. 15 is also a significant date for another pillar of Abeâ€™s agenda that is sure to angerÂ ChinaÂ andÂ South Korea â€“Â his pledge to scale back past apologies from the Japanese government for its wartime atrocities.
On Aug. 15, 1995, the 50thÂ anniversary ofÂ Japanâ€™s surrender, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi MurayamaÂ issued an apologyÂ for the suffering his nation had caused during the war.Â Throughout his political career, Abe has talked about reviewing this declaration, along withÂ another issued two years before itÂ by Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged that thousands of women were used as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army.Â
WhileÂ JapanÂ is sometimes accused by victims of its imperial expansion of not having done enough to atone for its crimes, there are those on the ultra-nationalist right who believe its apologies have gone too far and damaged national pride.Â
â€śAbeâ€™s rise in the ranks of the right wing of the LDP had a lot to do with his reactions against the Kono and Murayama statements,"Â says Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics atÂ SophiaÂ UniversityÂ inÂ Tokyo. "It is something of a pet project for him.â€ťÂ Â
Even if Abeâ€™s hand is strengthened by a strong performance in the summer election, however, he is likely to feel pressure fromÂ Japanâ€™s biggest ally to keep his historical revisionism to himself.Â Â
TheÂ USÂ has overlooked revisionist pronouncements by Japanese prime ministers in the past in return for strengthening the military alliance with the US, Professor Nakano says. However, there is a growing realization inÂ WashingtonÂ that such statements heighten the risk of Japanese conflict withÂ China â€“Â something theÂ USÂ could find itself drawn into.Â
Another check on Abeâ€™s nationalist tendencies will likely come from the Japanese people, who few observers think have moved as far to the right as their elected politicians.Â Â Â
â€śA gap has emerged between the Japanese politicians and the public, in that [the government] has shifted to the right, but the electorate really hasnâ€™t,â€ť Nakano says. â€śEven Abe doesnâ€™t believe he is back by popular demand.â€ťÂ
Nevertheless, with more nationalist voices on the political stage, including the new Japan Restoration Party led by serial China-baiter and formerÂ TokyoÂ governor Shintaro Ishihara, some worry the entire political debate could be shifting to the right.Â
Another concern is that growing income disparity inÂ JapanÂ may threaten the largely centrist consensus that has dominated the post-war period.Â Â
â€śWith 16 percent of Japanese people now living in relative poverty, that can be a breeding ground for nationalism, as itâ€™s easy to blame China or other outsiders for all their problems,â€ť Nakano says. â€śChinaÂ andÂ JapanÂ are now so intertwined economically that it should keep things in perspective, but there are no guarantees.â€ť