Japan’s strategic predicament behind the Yasukuni curtain

Author: Hugh White, ANU

Why did Prime Minster Abe visit Yasukuni Shrine? Tessa Morris-Suzuki says:

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.

I don’t doubt that she is right, but her answer does lead us straight on to another question: why does he want to ‘escape from the post war regime’? What is driving him?

There seem to be two possible answers to the question of Abe’s motives. One looks inwards, focusing on Abe himself — his family history, political values and personality — and on the elements in Japanese society and politics with whom his ideas and values resonate. I think this is the answer Tessa favours, and it seems to be taken for granted by most people outside, and possibly many inside, Japan who have commented on the issue. No doubt there is a lot of truth in it, and it leads to a satisfyingly simple response: blame Abe.

But this does seem to overlook another, more outward-looking explanation. Japan today faces its toughest strategic crisis since 1945, which is challenging the foundations of the post-war strategic posture that has served it so well for so long. To put it simply: as China grows, Japan has more and more reason to be anxious about China’s power, and less and less confidence in America’s willingness to protect it.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute shows how real those concerns are. China’s escalating pressure and America’s ambiguous response send an ominous message to Tokyo: that America would rather see Japan’s interests sacrificed than risk a confrontation with China, and that Beijing knows this. This is fatal to the Yoshida Doctrine of dependence on the US alliance as the foundation of Japan’s security. Japan can no longer afford to be a status quo power in Asia, because the old status quo no longer provides a reliable basis for Japan’s security.

No one in Japan seems to know how to deal with this. Abe’s instinct, shared by many others, is to move in two directions at once. On the one hand, to pull closer towards America by building up Japan’s capacity to support America throughout Asia, thus making America a better ally for Japan. At the same time to push away from America by asserting greater independence. Needless to say this push-and-pull policy won’t work, so Japan’s strategic policy is headed for a muddled and dangerous patch.

What has this got to do with visiting Yasukuni? There might be answers to this at two levels.

First, at the level of diplomacy, it seems worth wondering whether Abe is not trying to send some messages. The visit could be a message of defiance to Beijing — Abe’s answer to China’s ADIZ. He is saying to Xi Jinping, ‘You can’t stop me doing this’. And it could be a message of displeasure and disappointment to Washington for its timid and tepid support against China, and for its willingness to blame Tokyo as much as Beijing for the escalating dispute.

In other words, the visit to Yasukuni might, in part, be Abe’s way of saying that Japan is not willing to accept a new strategic order in Asia under which Japan’s interests are sacrificed by Washington to avoid problems with Beijing. One can see why that might be a message that Abe wants to send.

At a second, deeper, level the visit to Yasukuni is not just an assertion of a particular view of Japan’s past but also of its present and future. The strategic posture built around dependence on the United States has always been inextricably intertwined — in American as well as Japanese thinking — with Japan’s acceptance of the interpretation of history sponsored by the Americans after 1945. Visiting Yasukuni is therefore a repudiation not just of the US-sponsored view of history but of the whole idea of Japan as a strategic client of the United States.

The tragedy for Japan is that this melding of history and policy makes it so hard for everyone — Japanese and non-Japanese alike — to separate questions about Japan’s past as a strategic actor in Asia from very different questions about its future, and makes it all too easy to assume that moving on from the Yoshida Doctrine necessarily means rehabilitating Japan’s militarist and imperialist past.

That of course is quite wrong, but Abe himself may well believe it. As Tessa suggests, there is real weight in the inward-looking explanation of Abe’s conduct, because he does have his own ambitions to reshape Japan’s political and social milieu along reactionary lines, and to reinterpret Japan’s history. That makes it very unfortunate that he is leading Japan at this moment in its history as it wrestles with a strategic transition that would in any case be complex, risky and traumatic.

So we can blame Abe for using Yasukuni to convey messages about Japan’s strategic anxieties, and for the fact that this only amplifies Japan’s problems. But his visit did not create the problems, and the anxieties that they give rise to are real and legitimate. We can’t blame Abe for them. So while we criticise Abe, we should also start taking Japan’s strategic predicament seriously. No one — especially no one in Washington — seems so far to have done that.

What would that mean? Well for America it means facing a tough choice. The United States must either commit itself unambiguously to defending Japan’s core interests whatever the cost, or it must help Japan move away from the US–Japan alliance and regain the strategic independence it surrendered after 1945. This may be the most important implication of Abe’s much-heralded excursion.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.