Japanese PM visits war shrine, stirring regional tensions
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office a year ago, is the first Japanese leader in seven years to visit Yasukuni, seen as a symbol of Japanese militarism.
Beijing and Tokyo
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spun East Asia deeper into a vortex of mistrust and recriminationÂ Thursday, visiting a controversial shrine honoring Japanâ€™s war dead that its neighbors view as a symbol of Tokyoâ€™s past militarist aggression.
China reacted fiercely, issuing a â€śstrong protest and severe condemnationâ€ť of Mr. Abeâ€™s visit to Yasukuni, where the memorials of 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals, are enshrined. A minister in South Korea, which also suffered grievously under Japanese occupation, called the move â€śdeplorable.â€ť
Abeâ€™s visit to Yasukuni, the first in seven years by a sitting prime minister, appeared to kill any hopes of early reconciliation among the three nations, currently locked in territorial disputes and resentment over Japanâ€™s behavior during and before World War II.
â€śThis is one of the worst possible things he could have done,â€ť says Jia Qingguo, a professor of International Studies at Peking University. â€śPragmatic management of the problems between China and Japan will become more difficult.â€ť
Abe told reporters after the visit, which marked the first anniversary of his inauguration, that he had intended to â€śconvey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,â€ť and that â€śI have no intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese or Korean people.â€ť
Although â€śhe knew this would cause uproar,â€ť according to one Japanese official familiar with Abeâ€™s thinking, the Japanese leader reasoned that he had little to lose. â€śRelations with China cannot go further south â€“ they have hit bottom,â€ť the official said. The two nations are locked into a bitter dispute over ownership of a group of rocks known in China as the Diaoyu islands and in Japan as the Senkaku.
Prof. Jia is not persuaded. â€śThis can definitely make the relationship worse,â€ť he warns, â€śand there are people in China thinking of tougher actions that China can takeâ€ť in its military standoff around the islands.
The US embassy in Tokyo, in an unusually rapid response, said Washington was â€śdisappointedâ€ť by Abeâ€™s action, which it feared would â€śexacerbate tensionsâ€ť with Japanâ€™s neighbors. The shrine visit marks another turn of the screw in the region a month after Beijing declared an aerial defense identification zone over the disputed islands, a move Japan angrily rejected.Â
In October, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Japan, paid tribute at Chidorigafuchi,Â Japanâ€™s national cemetery, which many believe would be a lessÂ incendiary focal point for the countryâ€™s war-related commemorations. Hundreds of thousands of unidentified war dead are buried there, mostly in communal plots.Â
In sending senior politicians to Chidorigafuchi, the US had made clearÂ its disdain for Yasukuni, says Koichi Nakano, a professor of politicsÂ at Sophia University in Tokyo.Â
â€śIt was as if they were saying to Abe that he, too, should go toÂ Chidorigafuchi, not to Yasukuni,â€ť Mr. Nakano said.Â â€śThe US seems worried about Abeâ€™s nationalist tendencies. There areÂ also anxieties over Abeâ€™s enthusiasm for constitutional reform and aÂ bigger role for the Japanese military.â€ť
Military budget hike
Abe, who oversaw the increase of Japanâ€™s military budget this year and sought to amend its pacifist Constitution, is keen to restore Japanâ€™s pride in its past and is unapologetic about its wartime history.
He visited Yasukuni, suggests Robert Dujarric, a political analyst at Temple University in Tokyo, â€śbecause he believes in it. He is a values politicianâ€¦and Yasukuni symbolizes Japanâ€™s military modernization, defense of its sovereignty and the sacrifice of Japanese soldiers and sailors,â€ť all contemporary political hot-button issues as Japan faces an increasingly assertive China.
â€śAbe feels it is necessary for a Japanese leader to pay homage to the countryâ€™s war dead,â€ť explains Tomohiko Taniguchi, an adviser to the prime minister. â€śIt is all about Japanâ€™s collective memory and his fears that this mythology could become rootless. He probably decided that at some point, a political leader like him should not look at the headlines but follow his convictions.â€ť
Japanâ€™s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, said he hoped Abeâ€™s visitÂ would not worsen Japanâ€™s ties with its neighbors.Â "I understand that a politician's visit or a minister's visit to theÂ shrine is a matter of his or her personal beliefs,'' Mr. Kishida toldÂ reporters.
Abe is unlikely to pay a political price at home, where TV stationsÂ broke into scheduled programming to show live coverage of the leader,Â dressed in formal attire, being driven to Yasukuni, where he stayedÂ for about 15 minutes.
His approval ratings have recovered slightly, having dipped earlierÂ this month in the wake of the introduction of an unpopular stateÂ secrets bill. Moreover, his shrine visit will have pleased voters who wantedÂ their leader to demonstrate resolve in the face of ChineseÂ provocations over the disputed islands.
Abe had reportedly come under pressure from his conservative backersÂ in the governing Liberal Democratic Party to make a pilgrimage toÂ Yasukuni by the yearâ€™s end, given that another opportunity would notÂ have arisen until the shrine holds a festival next spring.
Abe did not visit the shrine during his first term as prime minister that ended in 2007. He later expressed regret that he â€“ for diplomatic reasons â€“ had not done so. A deep admirer of his grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, who was Minister of Industry for much of the Second World War, Abe sparked controversy earlier this year when he he said that the meaning of â€śaggressionâ€ť had yet to be defined in the context of Japanâ€™s invasion of China and Korea.
Coming in the wake of such statements, Abeâ€™s Yasukuni visit, which has upset Washington and infuriated Beijing and Seoul, â€śis very self destructive,â€ť says Shen Dingli, an international affairs analyst at Fudan University in Shanghai. â€śJapan has hurt itself.â€ťÂ