Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra
In visiting Yasukuni Shrine on 26 December, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe risks repeating former Prime Minister Koizumi’s disastrous Asia policy of 2001–06.
Koizumi was immune to the diplomatic costs of his paying annual homage at Yasukuni Shrine. The Chinese government did not permit him to visit China because he was not prepared to give an undertaking not to visit Yasukuni. Summit meetings were frozen for five years and there were huge anti-Japan demonstrations in China in early 2005. Japan and South Korea also went through one of their bitterest disputes in the postwar period.
Koizumi’s Asian diplomacy was nothing short of a disaster. Japan’s relations with its two major Northeast Asian neighbours fell to their lowest ebb in the post-war period. For this, Koizumi was not even apologetic; in fact, his response was delusional, claiming that ‘In many years down the road, the Chinese and the Koreans will understand’.
Perhaps Prime Minister Abe is equally delusional. No matter that he was preaching peace while visiting Yasukuni with its indelible links with Japan’s militaristic past. It is the ‘talismanic symbolism’ of Yasukuni that resonates amongst its supporters and critics alike. It remains a ‘symbol of pre-war state Shintoism’ with the historical baggage of a ‘discredited imperial ideology and the costs it exacted’. For countries such as China and South Korea, Yasukuni also symbolises Japan’s inadequate accounting for its wartime atrocities in Asia.
Given this symbolism, Abe’s claims that his intention is not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese or South Korean peoples ring hollow. Abe must have realised that his actions would cause serious diplomatic and potentially even wider security repercussions. Only deeply held beliefs could, therefore, be driving him, given how counterproductive he would know his visit would be to Japan’s international relations.
On the domestic front too, he could not have been motivated by considerations of gains in political support. The visit was not about politics — it was inspired by ideological conviction. This ideology is shared by right-wing political fringe-dwellers and a small but influential coterie of nationalists in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Japan Restoration Party. It is not, however, popular with Japan’s political mainstream.
The main public image that Abe has projected until now has been as a prime minister seeking Japan’s economic revival as his first priority. However, his visit to Yasukuni Shrine reveals Abe the person — and what really matters to him. It was only a question of time before this side of Abe would be on full public view. When former senior LDP politician Kōichi Katō spoke out against Prime Minister Koizumi for visiting Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August 2006, his family home in Yamagata was burned down by a senior, so-called ‘adviser’ to an extremist right-wing political group, the Greater Japan Compatriots (Dainihon Dōhōsha). At the time, it took Abe more than a week to condemn the burning of Kato’s house.
Attempts to mitigate the inevitable fall-out from Abe’s visit in the region will not assuage the fury of those in China and South Korea who see this act as insensitive and provocative. It will merely confirm their worst suspicions — that Japan is now being led by a prime minister pursuing an outdated agenda and who, as an historical revisionist, has never accepted that Japan’s defeat in WWII was a just outcome. China’s predictable response has been to send three coast guard ships into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
The fall-out in terms of Japan’s relations with the United States is also significant. The visit prompted open criticism from the US Embassy in Tokyo. In one fell swoop, Abe undid all the goodwill he earned from the Obama administration for precipitating a long-stalled breakthrough on relocating Futenma air station in Okinawa.
The visit undermines the solidity of the US-Japan alliance at a time when Abe seeks a stronger and more steadfast US commitment to Japanese security on issues with China. While the Bush administration might have been prepared to tolerate Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits in the interests of encouraging a Japanese contribution, however limited, to the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, the United States now, with its own rebalancing to Asia, places a much higher premium on Japan’s optimising its relations with its most important Northeast Asian neighbours. The risk is that Abe will become not just an embarrassment to America’s China diplomacy but an increasing burden, as well as a liability to trilateral US–Japan–South Korea security ties.
Abe’s Yasukuni visit may also have wider repercussions for domestic politics. It is the surface manifestation of a deep-seated mix of historical grievance and ethnocentrism that may produce an increasingly dangerous trend at the popular level, which drives the nation towards conflict. It builds on the patriotic education in schools initiated by Abe’s first administration in 2006 and mirrors parallel phenomena and political forces occurring in China. In the short term, Abe’s Yasukuni visit has encouraged and legitimated a campaign led by the Japan Restoration Party to reject the 1993 Kōno statement, which acknowledged that the Japanese military’s sex slaves (co-called ‘comfort women’) were coerced into service.
The economic repercussions may take longer to play out, but could be equally serious if the visit is interpreted as a shift in emphasis away from the Abe administration’s ‘economy first’ posture, thus rattling financial markets. The economy is unfinished business for Abe and he has baulked at the highest hurdle — structural reform. He is still practising what the LDP does best — over-relying on fiscal stimulus and calling it a growth strategy. According to some public opinion polls, support for the Abe cabinet has now fallen below 50 per cent, putting him on ever-more shaky political ground domestically.
Abe’s Yasukuni visit may prove a crucial turning point in his administration, away from the first year of an improved economic performance and outlook towards a more divisive and backward-looking political agenda.
Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.