In a move certain to inflame regional tensions, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit the controversial Yasukuni war shrine on Thursday.
According to local media, Abe will visit the war shrine a year after he took power. The Yasukuni war shrine honors soldiers who died fighting for Imperial Japan, including a number of class-A war criminals. Visits to the shrine by Japanese policymakers always draws strong criticism from Japan’s neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, both of whom suffered greatly under Japanese colonization during the first half of the 20th century.
Abe’s visit is likely to be viewed as especially provocative given that Seoul and Beijing already consider him to be a highly nationalistic figure. Abe resisted visiting the shrine during his first tenure as prime minister. According to media reports, the last sitting Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine was Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. Koizumi’s visit was to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII.
Abe has been weighing the issue of whether to visit the Yasukuni war shrine throughout his current term. He elected not to visit the shrine in August, although members of his cabinet attended a ceremony at the shrine, drawing sharp rebukes from South Korea and China. Abe did send a ritualistic offering of a tree branch with the cabinet members. There were also concerns that Abe would visit the war shrine during the Reitaisai festival. Abe again resisted.
Abe’s decision to visit the war shrine now will almost certainly be widely condemned by China. It will also anger South Korea leaders who have made moves to improve relations with Japan in recent weeks following China’s declaration of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The U.S. has also been known to urge Abe not to take actions that would be viewed as provocative in the region, such as visiting the Yasukuni shrine.
The move is likely to be popular at home, particularly among the conservative members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). By visiting the shrine, Abe might believe he can win greater support for some of the tough economic and social reforms he is seeking to get through the Japanese Diet.