Abe’s Yasukuni visit isolates Japan

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

To those who are general supporters of Abe’s economic, political and foreign policy initiatives, including myself, his visit to Yasukuni on 26 December was a bombshell of disappointment and helplessness.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd from L) is seen after paying homage at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2013. (Photo: AAP)

In order to resolve the issue of Yasukuni visits in Japanese politics that has been dragging on since the time of former Prime Minister Koizumi, I have argued that the Japanese themselves needed to come to terms with their own history. In particular, the question of Japan’s war responsibility needs to be definitively addressed, and until this and other issues are resolved there needs to be a moratorium on prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni.

Since Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit on 15 August 2006 there has actually been a de facto moratorium in place. But this period was not accompanied by a substantive government-led public discussion on how can Japan come to terms with its past. Abe’s visit broke that seven-year moratorium and his speech after the visit — emphasising the need to mourn the war dead and commit to policy of peace — made no mention of Japan’s war responsibility. Rather, his visit merely gives an impression of self-righteous one-sidedness to Japan’s still-incomplete soul searching process of coming to terms with the past.

The Abe visit has occurred in international and regional circumstances infinitely more difficult than that of Koizumi.

China’s weekly intrusions to the territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are creating a danger of armed conflict happening at any time, intentionally or accidentally. If a single incident were to occur, escalation to real warfare cannot be excluded. Abe has only two policy alernatives, facing this unprecedented, dangerous situation: deterrence and dialogue.

Abe’s policies of increased deterrence, including lifting the defence and coast guard budgets, a new National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Outline, and even belated efforts at revising the interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution have merit. But these policies have to be accompanied by a serious effort at dialogue.

Abe’s position that ‘there is no territorial dispute but the window for dialogue is opened’ is commendable, but it is also flawed without genuine measures to enhance dialogue. In a situation where military confrontation is in sight, any provocative measures should be avoided at all cost in order to strengthen trust, which is absolutely necessary for enhancing dialogue. For the Chinese leadership, visiting Yasukuni in the present circumstances will be taken as nothing but a provocation. Abe’s actions are beyond-words dangerous and regrettable.

The United States had previously sent signals to Japan to not provoke China. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit to the Chidorigafuchi graveyards of unknown soldiers on 3 October was, even for ordinary Japanese who are not well versed in international politics, an unambiguous sign not to rock the boat on Yasukuni.

The US response to Abe’s Yasukuni visit — expressing ‘disappointment’ — is, to an ally, the strongest diplomatic language that Washington could use to convey frustration and indignation. Abe’s visit could evoke in the mind of the American public a serious question: would it be worth risking American lives to defend a country whose leader is so incapable as to provoke China, despite repeated warnings? In a situation where Japan is risking war with China, American ‘disappointment’ could be suicidal.

South Korea too has expressed strong indignation. Abe has a responsibility, together with President Park, to restore the presently drifting Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship as soon as possible. The Yasukuni visit without any doubt distances this possibility.

The Yasukuni visit also could jeopardise Japan’s improving relationship with Russia, which has been opening promising opportunities to finally expand economic relations and resolve territorial issues. But the Russian foreign ministry’s statement on 26 December that ‘this visit cannot but evoke a sense of regret’, and its evaluation that the visit contradicts the ‘globally accepted view on the result of World War II’, no doubt undermines the position of those within the Russian government and public who were willing to enhance relations with Japan. Abe’s actions have thus weakened Japan’s negotiating position on the territorial issues with Russia, the origins of which derive from the outcome of WWII. If this visit becomes the beginning of the end for finally finding a breakthrough with Russia, the regret is inexpressible.

Thus, on 26 December 2013, Abe succeeded at one fell swoop in creating the encirclement of Japan by China, South Korea and Russia — the key three neighbouring countries in Northeast Asia — as well as the United States, on the critical issue of historical memory. This list may well be longer, extending to countries throughout the Asia Pacific and Europe.

What can Japan do about this major self-inflicted setback?

In the immediate future, there are few policy options. Japan needs to accept its weakened foreign policy position and react to any renewed difficulty. In the long run, Abe might have some chance of creating a national consensus on coming to terms with the past, taking into account all aspects of pre-war and post-war realities, including the issue of wartime responsibility. How realistic is it to hope for Abe’s leadership in this direction, we shall see, as Abe’s policy position evolves.

Kazuhiko Togo is director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University and former Ambassador of Japan to the Netherlands.

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  • Rawdon Dalrymple

    While sympathizing with Mr Togo’s reaction to PM Abe’s visit to Yasukuni shrine and recognizing the possible dangerous consequences I wonder about Abe’s motives. It is often said (and he has said this himself) that he wants to restore Japan’s pride in its warrior tradition and at least some elements in purposes in invading its neighbours and other Asian countries further afield (such as Indonesia).
    But the residual and “crunch” issue is whether Abe is prepared to stand up militarily to China even with only minimal US support. Japan has a formidable navy already and the Chinese leadership both CCP and PLA might not be ready to tackle it. There are clearly strains now on the alliance with the US and the latter will be making efforts to rein in further action by the Abe leadership to provoke China. How do Japan experts see the evolution of the Abe policy in terms of his readiness to take the risk of actual, even if limited conflict?

    • Kazuhiko Togo

      It is not easy for me to grasp Abe’s strategic evaluation on the possibility of entering into military conflict with China and the role which the U.S. may play in such a situation. He might have thought that the real danger to enter to military conflict is extremely low, or Japan can manage without U.S. support, or his visit would not endanger American support in case of real emergency. If I were to guess, the first two hypotheses seem to be highly unlikely. He should be sufficiently informed how dangerous the situation at sea is, and also he should not be that ignorant that skirmishes could escalate to real warfare unless there emerge compelling forces to halt the conflict. In the Japan-China’s case the only determinant force which could prevent escalation is U.S. intervention. This is close to common-sense. Thus it leaves the third hypothesis, which in my view proved to be completely wrong. But these are pure guesses.
      As for your first statement about restoring ‘some elements in purposes in invading its neighbours and other Asian countries further afield (such as Indonesia)’, I do not understand well your meaning. But however much I disagree with Abe’s visit to Yasukuni in the present situation, it has to be recognized and understood that he has no intention whatsoever to make military expansion or invasion to any other country, whether to Indonesia or elsewhere.

    • Yasukuni worry

      I’m not sure what Mr Dalrymple’s assumptions are. Does he assume that there are justifications ‘for standing up to China’ through engaging in armed conflict with her? And that Abe’s Japan might be the only country courageous enough to do that? These assumptions would seem entirely unwarranted at this time. but they clearly reflect a current in western thinking. Or is he asking the specialists to assess whether this is the mad mission on which Abe is embarked? This appears to be based on more plausible assumptions, and worries neighbours and Japan’s ally alike.

  • TONY ANDREWS

    If anyone in Japan doesn’t yet know about or is denial about the atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese soldiers during WW2, they should watch the new film The Railway Man, about the Japanese treatment of prisoners-of-war on the Burma-Thailand railway. I grew up through WW2 and remember the evidence given at subsequent war crimes trials and the reports of prisoners repatriated to Australia. I have no reason to doubt the film’s portrayal of the appalling brutality of Japanese soldiers towards their defenceless prisoners. It’s about time that the Japanese people, out of self-respect, acknowledged this shameful time in their otherwise glorious history. I expect that this inability to recognise past mistakes is a factor in present tensions between China and Japan.

    • Peter

      There was a less than 60 per cent POW survival rate for western prisoners of Japan in the Second World War; there was Less than 5 per cent survival rate for Chinese/Korean prisoners of Japan. So yes, there are things that were even worst than death marches

      • Kathy

        Where did you get those figures? And who were the Korean prisoners of Japan? Koreans fought WW2 against US as Japanese. Listen to other Asian countries if you can. Japan is not isolated. It’s only two twisted countries and the leftwing media who make loud noises.

        • Dominic Yusoff

          Korean prisoners must be a reference to the slave/forced laborers that the Japanese employed during the war. Other Asian countries may not be vocal about Yasukuni, but that doesn’t mean they support the view of history promoted by the Yasukuni Shrine.. Also what “leftwing media” are you referring to? Is it Japanese or Western? Western leftists usually buy into the Japan victim mentality due to atomic bombs and the firebombing and Western “rightwing” media still usally believe that the A-bombs were justified and that Japan had a grand conspiracy to conquer Asia.

      • Kazuhiko Togo

        Among the knowledge that the Japanese came to have included the appalling conditions at PoWs’ camps. I believe that that was one of the reasons which motivated the establishment of the Peace and Friendship Exchange Program.

    • Kazuhiko Togo

      The conditions of Allies’ PoWs became known to Japanese right from the time of the execution of class B and Class C war criminals’ tribunals and San Francisco Peace Treaty Article 16. It has since become an integral part of Japanese soul-searching and Japan’s efforts to come to terms with the war, which finally resulted in the 1995 Prime Minister Murayama’s Statement, and the implementation of the Peace and Friendship Exchange Program based on this Statement from 1995 up till 2004, including invitations to Japan of those who suffered. From Great Britain 784, the Netherlands 425 and Australia 56 former PoWs were invited. These efforts may not be sufficient from the point of view of those who actually suffered to heel the wound, but to say that the Japanese are not recognizing, or are completely neglectful of, the pain it caused in the past is not true either.

      • i agree with you Kazuhiko. But I have no reason to doubt the film’s portrayal of the appalling brutality of Japanese soldiers towards their defenceless prisoners.

      • Kathy

        It seems that you are suggesting Japan should blindly accept whatever claimed by their former enemies, the victors, forever and ever.

        I understand this Yasukuni was made a diplomatic issue by China out of the blue one day after being absolutely silent four decades after the war – like so-called-sex slaves by Korea, who was not even Japan’s enemy. They were Japanese themselves during the war.

        I suggest you and all other readers to start with a basic learning of the world power game. Try read the below to begin.

        * Victors’ Justice by Danilo Zolo
        * A History Of Political Trials by John Laughland

        • Dominic Yusoff

          Kathy, the Japanese did engage in atrocities during the war. This is fact not a claim as you suggest and it cannot be denied by anyone. And please remember, most of the evidence of Japanese crimes is due to testimony and confessions from Japanese officers and soldiers. Are you suggesting that such men who fought for their country are liars? Indeed China is unfairly highlighting the Yasukuni issue as Japan is a convenient punching bag for the CCP. However it is a two way street, the CCP would not have any ammunition if Abe did not give it to them.

  • Sourabh Gupta

    Your focus on the question of war responsibility, and the need for the Japanese political establishment foremost to come to some form of loose consensus on this, is an important one.

    Ever since Mr. Abe got slapped down on trying to revise the understanding of ‘aggression’, he has of course gone silent on this issue. But he has also begun to eliminate all references to war responibility in his policy speeches to domestic audiences.

    Isn’t it an irony that Mr. Abe goes to Yasukuni (and Chinreisha) to pray for the souls of fallen Koreans and Chinese too but cannot bring himself to express any words of sympathy or otherwise – let alone acknowledgement of responsibility – to these Asian countries in his August 15th War Memorial speech.

    “Escaping the postwar regime” will require that the pre-war regime is first appropriately understood and acknowleged. There was much good that Japan accomplished in the Meiji and Taisho years but there were also some deep wrongdoings in that and the early Showa period. And Japan owes itself a fuller debate on this difficult topic.

    regards, Sourabh

  • It’s not isolating Japan in the slightest and for that, there is China to thank for acting like the thug state they are.