When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came to Tokyo in October, the pair paid an unexpected visit to a place considered neutral political ground in Chiyoda Ward.
No doubt the two were sending an indirect but unquestionably clear message to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by laying flowers at the Chidorigafuchi cemetery: don’t go to Yasukuni Shrine and stir up war-related anger in East Asia.
Chidorigafuchi is dedicated to the remains of unidentified Japanese who died overseas in the war.
Many political leaders have visited the cemetery over the years to express their condolences for war victims without drawing political flak.
Abe often defended politicians’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine by likening them with U.S. leaders’ visits to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Kerry and Hagel apparently signalled, however, that if Abe wanted to pay homage to Japan’s war dead, he should go to Chidorigafuchi, not Yasukuni.
America believes it is vital that Japan, China and South Korea enjoy stable relations at a time when Washington must address various political and economic challenges in Asia.
But on Thursday Abe went ahead and visited Yasukuni. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo immediately posted an unusually blunt statement indirectly criticizing his move.
“Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors,” the statement read.
“The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past, to improve their relations, and to promote cooperation in advancing our shared goals of regional peace and stability,” it read.
According to Kyodo News, the U.S. first considered expressing “regret” or “concern” in the statement, but the stronger language was chosen through prior consultation between the White House and the State Department.
Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden visited Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul to urge leaders to improve relations. Washington reportedly called on Abe not to go to Yasukuni.
Abe has centered his diplomacy on Japan’s close ties with the United States, particularly when it comes to China’s growing military and economic presence.
Since his inauguration last December, he had maintained a relatively low profile toward China and South Korea over matters of wartime history. He avoided revising official apologies regarding Japan’s aggression in other parts of Asia, despite earlier posturing suggesting otherwise.
A high-ranking official close to Abe earlier noted that because Japan crucially needs U.S. assistance in dealing with a number of diplomatic issues, efforts were made to soften his administration’s stance on sensitive historical issues.
“In my case, it all comes from consideration of (relations) with the U.S.,” the official said.
But this time, the official apparently failed to persuade Abe to give Yasukuni Shrine a miss.
Experts speculated that Abe opted to visit the shrine Thursday because he reckoned Japan’s relations with China and South Korea couldn’t get any worse.
Abe has repeatedly said his door is open if Seoul or Beijing want to have a summit, but no such meeting has happened since he took office and instead relations have deteriorated.
Abe didn’t visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15, the anniversary day of Japan’s World War II surrender, and apparently explored ways to arrange a summit in the fall. But China, with which Japan is recently and routinely confronting over its military forays around the Senkaku Islands, and South Korea, which holds islets that Japan claims, were not interested in meeting.
Abe meanwhile had appeared mindful of the risks of enraging Beijing and Seoul and disappointing Washington at the same time.
He immediately issued a written statement and an English-translated version Thursday regarding his Yasukuni visit.
Abe repeatedly emphasized his visit was not designed to “pay homage to war criminals,” and reiterated that Japan should never wage war again.
“It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people,” he said.
But Bonji Ohara, a China expert and research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, said Abe’s visit to Yasukuni will only give hard-line Chinese leaders ammunition to take an even tougher stance against Japan.
China’s leaders will find it even more difficult to resist such pressure, he said.