By staying away from war-linked Yasukuni Shrine during its autumn festival while leaving the door open for a future visit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is balancing his desire to repair relations with China and South Korea with pleasing his conservative support base.
Abe also appears to have taken care that the United States, which has no interest in seeing an increase in already heightened East Asia tensions, is not aggravated by a visit to the Shinto shrine regarded by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism before and during World War II.
On Thursday, Abe made a ritual offering to Yasukuni but without going there in person, marking the third time that the Liberal Democratic Party leader has eschewed a visit to the shrine on major occasions since becoming prime minister in late December.
In addition to millions of Japanese war dead, the shrine in central Tokyo honors 14 people who were charged or convicted by a war tribunal as Class-A war criminals. Visits by senior officials have angered people in countries victimized by Japan’s colonial rule or wartime aggression.
According to a source close to Japan-U.S. relations, before the four-day autumn festival started Thursday, Washington communicated its position to Abe’s government through diplomatic and other channels, asking it to consider sentiment in neighboring nations and to behave calmly.
Abe, who has repeatedly said he is always open for dialogue with China and South Korea, would contradict himself by paying a visit to Yasukuni and worsening relationships that have been severely damaged by territorial disputes and issues related to Japan’s militaristic past.
But frustration is evident among Abe’s conservative support base, which has been hoping in vain to see his first visit to the shrine as prime minister.
“Is there any point in gathering under a chairman who doesn’t even pay a visit to Yasukuni Shrine,” a lawmaker asked pointedly at a meeting Thursday of a cross-party conservative parliamentary group headed by Abe.One of the participants in the meeting who is close to the prime minister expressed concern that Abe could quickly lose support from other lawmakers unless he decides to visit the shrine.
Abe never visited Yasukuni the first time he was prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, something he later described as “regrettable.” He has also told those around him that as national leader he has every right to visit the shrine to pay respects to the nation’s war dead.
Comments like this suggest he has not given up on visiting Yasukuni as prime minister.
But he has so far stayed away despite the risk of alienating his conservative supporters, and he can feel safe in doing so because his Cabinet is getting high public approval ratings and, barring a political crisis, won’t have to face a national election until summer 2016.
A member of the LDP said the prime minister “has probably factored in the possibility that some supporters may move away from him.”
Asked Thursday morning if he won’t be going to the shrine during the autumn festival through Sunday, Abe breezed by without answering. Neither did he mention the Yasukuni issue during official functions the rest of the day.
South Korea criticized Abe’s offering Thursday and the visit to the shrine Friday by about 160 Diet members, including Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo.
Following the lawmakers’ visits, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Japanese Ambassador Masato Kitera later in the day to sternly tell him China’s position on the shrine, according to the embassy in Beijing.
During a meeting lasting about 40 minutes, the ambassador told Liu that the Abe administration is not in a position to comment on actions taken in a private capacity by its members and Diet lawmakers, the embassy said.
Kitera also reminded Liu that Japan has acted as “a peaceful country” since the end of World War II and views the Sino-Japanese relationship as “one of the most important,” the embassy said.
China has reacted relatively calmly to Abe’s offering to the shrine, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday stopping short of directly commenting on it, instead urging the Japanese side to “properly handle the relevant issues.”