Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo today. The visit marked the first instance in seven years that a sitting Japanese Prime Minister visited the shrine – Junichiro Koizumi paid a visit in 2006. Every visit to the shrine by even low-ranking Japanese politicians draws strong condemnation and criticism from Japan’s neighbors South Korea and China, who associate the shrine with Japan’s reluctance to fully acknowledge the suffering it caused during World War II.
Against the backdrop of souring relations across the board in northeast Asia, why would Abe visit the Yasukuni shrine? He is acutely aware of the political sensitivity of the shrine – during his first tenure as Prime Minister from 2006 – 2007, Abe refrained from visiting the shrine and actually managed to improve ties with China. Abe 2, however, has little in common with Abe 1’s style of leadership. Since winning the LDP’s support for Prime Minister last year, Abe had made no secret of his plans to visit the shrine – he had repeatedly stated his intention to go.
In a somewhat cynical reading, one could proffer the argument that Abe strategically timed the visit to coincide with China’s introspection around the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong. Japan and China have been locked in an escalatory spiral in the East China Sea centered around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, with each playing a tit-for-tat game. The East China Sea situation reached its high-water-mark in late 2013 when China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Abe himself disavowed any connection between the Yasukuni visit and Japan’s relations with its neighbors. He told reporters at Yasukuni that he “chose this day to report (to enshrined spirits) what we have done in the year since the administration launched and to pledge and determine that never again will people suffer in war.” Abe continued:
I am aware that, because of misunderstandings, some people criticize a visit to Yasukuni shrine as an act of worshipping war criminals, but I made my visit to pledge to create an era where people will never suffer from catastrophe in war.
I have no intention at all to hurt the feelings of Chinese or South Korean people.
The official response of the Chinese foreign ministry regarding the visit was, somewhat predictably, that it was “absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people.” To China, the visit reinforces a troubling view of Abe as a revisionist nationalist Japanese Prime Minister, out to restore Japan’s greatness. Abe has shown Japan’s neighbors that he’s a Prime Minister worth taking seriously – he’ll be the first one to hold the office for longer than a year since Junichiro Koizumi’s lengthy term. Abe’s Yasukuni visit will likely invigorate his supporters, ensuring that his mandate as Prime Minister lasts well into 2014 and possibly longer.
Abe has matured politically since his 2006 – 2007 term, when his attempt to sell his image as a deeply nationalistic leader was a hard sell with the Japanese public. His domestic political strategy this time appears to be more astute. He began his term as Prime Minister, precisely one year ago, by first tackling Japan’s economic sclerosis. “Abenomics” boldly took Japan into uncharted waters in economic policy and Abe reaped the rewards – the LDP won both houses in Japan’s Diet and the Abe’s mandate grew stronger.
What Abe was unable to do in his first term may be possible now due to his success on the economic policy front and because of perceptions in Japan that China is engaging in unacceptable brinksmanship in the East China Sea. Public opinion on China is at historic lows in Japan (the feeling is mutual in China) and Abe might succeed in finally selling his “nationalist” alter ego to a Japanese public that had largely been reluctant to have anything to do with that aspect of Japan’s national identity.
The first major litmus test will be the domestic reaction within Japan to Abe’s visit to Yasukuni this time around. Abe’s ability to pass a progressive and expansive defense budget additionally confirms that his political strategy is succeeding in Japan. The effect of a visit to Yasukuni on Japan’s regional relations is well appreciated, but Abe’s aim with the most recent visit may have been to win domestic favor with his supporters and opponents alike.