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.