Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (pronounced “Ah-bay”) has just visited Yasukuni Shrine, Ground Zero for political controversy with China and Seoul. In doing so, he has all but acknowledged that a cold war exists between Japan and its northeast-Asian neighbors China and South Korea. It’s a shot across the bow of both countries, boldly, perhaps recklessly, announcing that Japan will no longer seek better relations on their terms. Nor does he have the support of the United States. Abe is putting Japan on a path of increasing diplomatic self-reliance, but doing so with the belief that it is the right response to continued tensions with Beijing and Seoul. That it will inflame those tensions, he is well aware.
Yasukuni Shrine is somewhat analogous to Arlington National Cemetery, being the religious site where the spirits of Japan’s war dead since 1867 are commemorated. Founded in 1869 across from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, there are nearly 2.5 million individuals enshrined there. Among them are 14 Class A war criminals from World War II, including wartime premier Hideki Tojo. These individuals were enshrined in 1978, nearly two decades after the first Class B and C war criminals were included in the shrine. Emperor Hirohito, who reigned during the war, refused to visit the shrine after 1978 and the inclusion of Tojo and others.
There was little international controversy about the shrine until 1985, when then–prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone paid an official visit to offer prayers for the dead. The outcry forced him to abandon plans for future visits, but annual visits by popular prime minister Junichiro Koizumi between 2001 and 2006 again fanned the flames of diplomatic protest. Both Beijing and South Korea have heatedly and vehemently condemned visits to the shrine by any serving Japanese cabinet official, and especially the prime minister. While no doubt feeling true outrage over what they see as attempts to whitewash the memory of the atrocities committed by the Class A war criminals, Chinese and Korean officials have also used the shrine visits as a means of pressuring Japan and keeping it diplomatically isolated in Asia. Contemporary politics have as much to do with the furor over Yasukuni as does the historical record.
Since 2006 no serving Japanese prime minister visited Yasukuni, in part to try and stabilize relations with China and South Korea. Yesterday, a year after taking office and refraining from going to the shrine, Prime Minister Abe made an official visit. The reaction from Beijing and Seoul was swift and expected. According to the BBC, “China called the visit ‘absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people’, and Seoul expressed ‘regret and anger’.” More surprisingly, and worryingly, the BBC reports that “the US embassy in Tokyo said in a statement it was ‘disappointed’ and that Mr. Abe’s actions would ‘exacerbate tensions’ with Japan’s neighbors.” It was a clear message that Washington doesn’t trust Abe’s judgment and may not see him as a responsible ally.
Both Beijing and Seoul will undoubtedly take comfort in the U.S. pronouncement, seeing it as a signal to pressure Tokyo and continue with their relentless attempts to isolate Japan. South Korean president Park Geun Hye has been particularly vociferous in her anti-Japanese statements, taking the opportunity during the visits of Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Hagel to publicly chastise, if not embarrass, Japan. For those concerned over Washington’s repeated attempts to restrain Tokyo’s response to China’s provocations in the waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands, the embassy statement will seem yet another instance of the U.S. government undercutting its ally.
The real question is not what China and South Korea will do in response to Abe’s visit. The question is, rather: Why now? Abe is regularly labeled a nationalist and right-winger, by political opponents at home and anti-Japanese voices abroad, in both Asia and America. His plans to increase Japan’s defense budget and lift some of the remaining post-war restrictions on Tokyo’s ability to engage in collective self-defense, as well as undertake some controversial constitutional reforms related to civil liberties, has alarmed critics at home and abroad.
From Abe’s perspective, the trend line in northeast Asia is getting worse. He has been rebuffed for nearly a year by the South Korean president, who has met with the Chinese. Last month, China established a controversial air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that partly overlaps Japan’s own zone over the Senkaku Islands. Instead of a firm American response, Tokyo saw Vice President Biden fail to demand a repeal of the zone during his visit to Beijing. China’s military modernization and growth plan shows no sign of abating, and it is starting to develop sophisticated offensive weapons such as aircraft carriers and stealth fighters.
Thus, rather than start 2014 on the defensive, Abe seems to have decided to take the bit between his teeth. It shows he’s willing to buck his only ally, the United States, and pursue a more independent path. His visit was a message that his administration will not continue to apologize for its history, having done so numerous times in the past. It is also a signal that he will not supplicate for better relations with China and Korea at the expense of what he thinks is in Japan’s best interests. At the outer edge of interpretation, that may well mean a more muscular response to China’s interloping around the Senkaku Islands or moving ahead on strike capabilities that could target North Korea. Combining this with a push for high-level diplomatic talks with Beijing and Seoul could possibly blunt the impact of his visit, but for the foreseeable future, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea will be in a deep freeze.