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.