What was Abe thinking, going to Yasukuni?

Author: Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ANU

When a new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government headed by Shinzo Abe came to power a year ago, international reactions were deeply divided. Some commentators expressed alarm at the new prime minister’s nationalist rhetoric, and warned of heightened tensions in East Asia. Others, pointing to the experience of Abe’s earlier brief period in power in 2006–07, suggested that, despite the rhetoric, Abe was a pragmatist who would soon take steps to improve relations with Japan’s most important neighbours, China and South Korea.

A year into Abe’s second prime ministership, it seems clear that the pessimists were right. Over the past year, relations between Japan and its neighbours, particularly China, have sunk to a low point not seen since the Cold War era. Regional tensions have been exacerbated by statements emanating from Beijing and Seoul as well as from Tokyo, but the Abe administration’s nationalist stance has been a major factor in these tensions. That stance was on display again on 26 December, when Abe made a highly controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine — the Shinto shrine in which the spirits of Japan’s fallen soldiers are revered.

Ever since Abe’s return to power, a possible prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni had been the subject of guessing games. Visits by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi between 2001 and 2006 were the main cause of a significant worsening of Sino-Japanese relations during those years.

In his first term as prime minister Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni. But he is a staunch believer in the values that the Shrine represents, and leads a cross-party group of parliamentarians known as the ‘Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership’. Once he was swept back to power with a large majority, there were expectations from Abe’s supporters that he would make the visit.

The timing of Abe’s Yasukuni visit is significant. Rather than choosing one of the traditionally important days on the Shrine’s calendar, Abe chose to make his symbolic gesture on 26 December — the first anniversary of his own return to power. The visit, in other words, is all about Shinzo Abe, his ideology and his ambitions.
Abe’s first prime ministership was marked by economic stagnation and corruption scandals that led to the resignation of several of his ministers. He himself was plagued by ill-health, and stepped down after staying in power for precisely one year and one day. This time round, he has come back with a determination to stamp his mark on history and to push through his long-cherished right-wing agenda. His core aim is to ‘escape from the postwar regime’ — that is, to reverse the liberalising reforms introduced to Japanese politics and society in the wake of the Asia Pacific War — and his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is a very explicit expression of that aim.

Abe’s supporters argue that Yasukuni Shine is simply a national war memorial, and that Japan’s leaders should be free to pay their respects there, just as the leaders of many countries lay wreaths at national cenotaphs. But this argument does not stand up to scrutiny. Created in the late 19th century, the Yasukuni Shine became the embodiment of mid-20th century state Shinto. As the Shrine’s own publicity makes clear, spirits of all fallen imperial soldiers (and some military auxiliaries and others) are enshrined there and worshipped as Shinto gods. This enshrinement, which occurred regardless of the bereaved families’ wishes, offends many Japanese Christians and others, as well as the families of Koreans, Taiwanese and other colonial subjects recruited to fight in the war who do not want their dead relatives to be appropriated in this way.

The Shrine not only commemorates the dead of Japan’s wars but tells a particular story about those wars. The Yushukan Museum in the Shrine precinct presents an image of the Asia Pacific war that justifies Japan’s invasion of its Asian neighbours as the liberation of Asia from western colonialism. Most notoriously, the Yasukuni Shrine is also the place where executed A-class war criminals are revered. These include Iwane Matsui, the general in command of Japanese forces that carried out the Nanjing Massacre of 1937–38.

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine is a calculated step to flaunt his nationalist credentials and impress his supporters. It is a step taken in the knowledge that it will inflame tensions with Japan’s closest neighbours. And in inflaming these tensions, the Abe government’s stance creates serious diplomatic embarrassments for friendly countries, including the United States and Australia, which, if they do not speak out on this issue, risk being seen by China and Korea as condoning provocative acts by Japan.

Japan’s friends on the outside of these historical tensions, but with core interests in a peaceful and cooperative Asia, should not allow themselves to become caught up in this dangerous ideological game. Only by expressing diplomatic but very clear opposition to provocative acts by any regional government (including Japan’s) can countries like the United States and Australia play a role in helping to defuse the worsening vicious circle of tensions in East Asia.

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.


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  • Jepoi

    “His core aim is to ‘escape from the postwar regime’ — that is, to reverse the liberalising reforms introduced to Japanese politics and society in the wake of the Asia Pacific War”

    — Where did you get this from?

    • Tessa

      Dear Jepoi,

      Abe has expressed his core aim of achieving “escape from the postwar regime” (sengo rejimu kara no dakkyaku) in many places, including a major speech made in April 2009, which can be seen on Youtube at http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SR9K1xiJFzU&desktop_uri=per cent2Fwatchper cent3Fvper cent3DSR9K1xiJFzU

  • qksand

    It is sad that the Japanese people in general do not seem care about the truth of the WWII – invasion of other nations by Japan and war crimes against her neighbors in the name of liberation of Asia from western colonialism. Further more, Japanese people seem to believe that they are the victims of the atomic and nuclear weapons and refuse to acknowledge the real cause of their eventual un-conditional surrounder.

    • Ken Ward

      Had the Abbott government publicly criticised Abe’s Yasukuni visit as promptly as it earlier denounced China’s declaration of an ADIZ, it might have contributed to the defusing of tensions in Northeast Asia that the author of this excellent post calls for. The Chinese ADIZ question involved various technicalities that should probably have required considerable time to evaluate before a public statement could be made. By contrast, the question of Japanese prime ministers’ visits to Yasukuni involves no technicalities at all. Such visits are simply stupid and wrong. Yet we had an almost immediate public reaction in the first instance, and we have had none so far in the second.

      The Abbott government came to power with the slogan “more Jakarta, less Geneva” echoing around the nation. But, as long as it remains obsessed with stopping the boats, and as long as President Yudhoyono nurses his wounds of offended amour-propre, I suspect that we are going to have less and less Jakarta. What we have got, instead, seems to be more Tel Aviv, Tokyo and Washington.

      In the various votes that Australia has recently cast on Israel/Palestine resolutions at the UN, we have distanced ourselves from all Asian countries and sided with such strategic heavyweights as the Marshall Islands and Palau, along with the US, Stephen Harper’s strongly pro-Israeli Canada and, of course, Israel itself. Foreign Minister Bishop has defended this pivot back to our traditionally uncritical support of everything Israel does. The Labor government toyed a little, but not very much, with flexibility on the question. So Ms Bishop argues that we are now more ‘balanced’, apparently without noticing that this puts us at odds with all our Asian neighbours.

      Mr Abbott’s description of Japan as “our best friend in Asia” was a violation of a sensible precept in public diplomacy, namely, superlatives should never be used. Weighing up the Japanese superlative against the Indonesian superlative, which had it that Indonesia was the most important country for Australia, was difficult at first. But our statement on the Chinese ADIZ, which Indonesia has still not publicly condemned, showed that “best friend” carried more weight than the “most important country”.

      Only after Mr Abbott has visited Washington will we know the full dimensions of his US policy. Will he side with Washington in restraining Tel Aviv and lending his support to a happy resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem and to the creation of a truly sovereign Palestinian state? Similarly, will he join Washington in trying to contain Abe Shinzo? Abe is shaping up to be the most dangerous prime minister Japan has had for a long time.

    • hj

      That is because Japanese government has tried to educate their young students with a distorted view of history through textbooks that laud class A Japanese war criminals as heros.