Editorial: Prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine

Did he know it would trigger protests by Japan’s neighbors?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine yesterday. Why did he choose to go there on the first anniversary of the launch of his administration?

China and South Korea wasted no time in strongly condemning the visit to the shrine. And Komeito, a partner in the coalition government, did not hide its displeasure.

The prime minister must have taken all that into consideration. Presumably, he stuck to his guns and went ahead with the visit to mark the first anniversary of his administration, knowing there would be a backlash from Japan’s neighbors.

But many citizens must have been taken by surprise. After visiting the shrine, the prime minister said he had “paid my respects and prayed for the souls of all those who had fought for the country.” He also stated he would “firmly uphold the pledge never to wage a war again.” But if he truly wants to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the war and vow to uphold peace, there are other ways to do it.

The prime minister also said the purpose of his visit was “to report before the souls of the war dead how my administration has worked for one year.” It stands to reason that people will regard this as mere self-promotion.

Mr. Abe has stated that it was “extremely regrettable” that he did not visit Yasukuni Shrine during his first term as prime minister. It’s clear that he feels he has a responsibility to visit the shrine every year.

Nevertheless his prudence went out the window. Some in the government have suggested that a weakening of the foundation of his administration is behind Mr. Abe’s visit to the shrine.

That is to say, if he had put off a visit to the shrine any longer, he would have run the risk of alienating the conservatives who back his administration. And if the economy loses steam following the hike in the consumption rate next April, it will sound a warning or may even spell the end of the administration, which has touted economic recovery.

The way the ruling coalition practically pushed the Special Secrecy Law through the Diet led to a rapid, albeit temporary, drop in the approval rating for the Cabinet. That is no doubt why the administration is again trying to promote its pledge to “bring back a strong Japan,” the basic principle behind its management of the government.

But if that’s the case, the prime minister is liable to be criticized for using Yasukuni Shrine for political purposes.

Of course, looking at China’s recent behavior, such as its establishment of a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, one might conclude that relations between Japan and China couldn’t get any worse anyway.

But will either nation really benefit from heated demonstrations of nationalism? A calm evaluation of the situation is essential.

The administration of Xi Jin Ping conducts its diplomacy by trying to look tough so as to divert the public’s attention from their dissatisfaction with the nation’s mounting domestic problems. As a result of his visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the prime minister will no longer be able to criticize China for this.

Class A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine. As long as the prime minister of Japan continues to go there, it will inevitably lead to greater friction between Japan and its neighbors, no matter how much he stresses that he prayed for the souls of all those who lost their lives in the war regardless of nationality.

The prime minister said his visit to the shrine has been misunderstood and expressed his eagerness to obtain the understanding of the leaders of China and South Korea through dialogue.

Unlike previous prime ministers, in his remarks at last summer’s memorial service for the war dead, Mr. Abe did not mention Japan’s responsibility for its wartime aggression in Asia or the nation’s pledge never to go to war again. Why not?

The Abe administration has proclaimed “active pacifism based on international cooperation” as the basis of its approach to diplomacy and security. As long as Japan fails to demonstrate international cooperation through concrete actions, its relations with China and South Korea can’t easily be improved.

The U.S. embassy’s statement on the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine is worth noting. It adopted an attitude of detachment saying simply that “the United States is disappointed.”

This suggests a strong desire on the part of the U.S. to encourage stability in East Asia. At the same time, the prime minister’s goal of “departure from the postwar regime” may incur the wrath of the nation that was victorious in the war. Thus the statement can also be interpreted as a warning.

(Originally published on December 27, 2013)