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Yasukuni visits make unified response to N. Korea difficult

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo

At a time when North Korea’s erratic behavior has underscored the need for cooperation in Asia, Japan’s delicate ties with China and South Korea have become even more tenuous amid increasing displays of nationalism by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The latest cooling of relations, precipitated by visits over the weekend by several members of the Abe Cabinet to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, has raised fears Japan will see its regional influence dissipate more as China’s clout grows apace.

This week’s standoff between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, with as many as eight Chinese government vessels cruising in Japanese waters around the disputed islets for hours on Tuesday, has cast a further pall over dealings between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.

With a key election coming up in July, Abe is eager to maintain the backing of nationalist voters, the main supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party, observers say.

On Wednesday, Abe rebutted Chinese and South Korean criticism of his ministers’ visits to Yasukuni, telling a parliamentary session in a defiant tone that his ministers “will not yield to any form of intimidation. . . . It’s natural to uphold the freedom to express feelings of respect to the respected souls.”

South Korea said Monday that Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se had canceled his scheduled trip to Japan this week to protest the visits of three ministers to the Shinto shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals from World War II and millions of Japan’s war dead.

The reaction of Seoul, which appeared particularly offended by the visit of Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, the No. 2 man in the Cabinet, surprised Tokyo because Abe, who visited the shrine regularly before becoming prime minister, refrained from doing so this time.

“While in August, when the Democratic Party of Japan was still in power and several Cabinet ministers visited the shrine, the government of then-President Lee Myung Bak did not react as sharply,” a high-level Japanese official said, expressing discomfort with the reaction from the government of new President Park Geun Hye.

China has also registered its displeasure with the Shinto visits, saying that the issue of Yasukuni is connected to whether Tokyo acknowledges its history of militarist aggression and whether it can respect the feelings of the victimized countries.

It did not help that a total of 168 Japanese lawmakers visited the shrine as a group on Tuesday, the largest since 1989, when an interparty league of parliamentarians began keeping records.

The controversial shrine is viewed by Japan’s neighbors as the spiritual backbone of the country’s militarism in the first half of the 20th century. In 1978, it enshrined 14 people convicted as Class-A criminals by the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, including former Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo. Shinto rules also required that the populace worship the emperor as a god.

While some Japanese officials have sought to mitigate the furor among its neighbors, others, including Abe, who is known for his hawkish views, have expressed increasing frustration with China and South Korea.

At a Diet session Tuesday, Abe said the word aggression is not uniformly defined internationally, and that the evaluation of such an act varies “depending on the side from which you look at it.”

Abe also told the Diet on Monday that his Cabinet “has not necessarily inherited” Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s statement in 1995, which unequivocably apologized for Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia. The statement had been endorsed by successive governments for nearly two decades.

Abe’s remarks have further angered Japan’s neighbors, prompting a warning from South Korea’s Park that if Tokyo “turns rightist, its relations with many countries in Asia will become difficult, which is not desirable for Japan as well,” the Yonhap news agency reported.

Japan’s chilly ties with China and South Korea have left some Japanese officials concerned about an unraveling of cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea in responding to North Korean threats, the most pressing matter in the region at the moment.

“It is North Korea, which is developing nuclear weapons, that stands to gain from squabbling between Japan and South Korea,” a Foreign Ministry source said. “The United States, our ally, must feel like asking what in the world Japan and South Korea are quarreling over.”

China may also reach out to South Korea to form a united front over the Yasukuni issue, observers say.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Reactionary nationalists are not the way forward.
    Though I agree with Abe’s policies on addressing the ludicrous exchange rate of the yen that the finance ministry tool Noda allowed in his cowtowing to his American mentors, everything else about Abe’s politics is less than dirt.

  • Underhill

    What South Korea and other nations is upset about is the rise of Imperialist Japan. Abe has said his intention is to restore the Emperor as the legal head of state in the constitution, as well as other ultranationalist moves such as legalizing the ability for pre-emptive strikes and the ability to change the constitution with a simple majority. To characterize this as a squabble is to be intentionally myopic.

    • Masa Chekov

      Ultranationalist? Imperialist? Japan doesn’t even have an offensive army. In what world is the establishment of an armed forced capable of acting offensively “ultranationalist”?

      If that is ultranationalist, then pretty much every head of state in the world is an “ultranationalist”. Why do you want to judge Japan and Japanese politicians by such a different standard than the rest of the world?

      • Neighbor U-Dunno

        You are grossly underestimating Japan’s military strength that is cleverly disguised under the name “Self Defense Ministry” which is a well-funded with state-of-art capability, especially its naval forces.

        Japan uses its massive economic power to dominate and control many developing countries and quietly stockpile nuclear fuel for its weaponry program. The nuclear meltdown disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi TEPCO nuclear power plant did not happen in its reactors, but in its hidden collection of used fuel rods. Go figure why Japan has collected and kept so much radioactive materials in all its nuclear facilities?!

        Ever since Japan became the second largest economic power in the world, it has used various means to bully and control so many countries and regions — for a long extended period, the communist China was a pawn in Japan’s hands, but no more.

        Just pay a short visit to Taiwan, one can easily see the Japanese footprints all over the place. The island bears a name as the Republic of “China,” but in reality, it has slowly again turned into a Japanese colony as the Japanese militarists envisioned in 1890′s and again after the Korean War.

        Japan’s blanket denial of its WWII war responsibilities is stunning and outrageous. It has essentially lost its national moral compass through the thorough cleansing its past sins in its history teaching and government-controlled & induced propaganda.

      • Masa Chekov

        Oh my. This is quite honestly ridiculous. I’m not sure what Japan you are referring to here, or what decade, but it’s not 2010s Japan.

        I get the impression you don’t know much about Japan at all. I suspect you’ve never visited let alone lived here.

        Seriously? Nuclear weaponry program? Do you actually believe this? It’s not only completely, 100% demonstrably totally false, it’s patently ludicrous.

        This is like a giant mishmash of anti-Japan conspiracy theory and Fukushima conspiracy nonsense, all of which is incorrect.

  • Guest

    What baffles me more than anything is the lack of perception and tact the source in the Foreign Ministry seems to possess. It’s as if the common threat of North Korea is meant to heal all the old wounds and wash away all the sins of Japan’s Korean rule. I am all for Japan asserting itself, but it does so in a manner that is almost comical in its lack of foresight. Japan needs to strengthen ties, even if it has to play second fiddle to South Korea and China; its sun has set for now, and it cannot afford to lose friends as it tries to hold on to old glories. Accepting its current decline as a power and bolstering ties with its neighbors is the only way to move forward economically etc.