Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine was the perfect Christmas gift for the domestic press, which around this season usually falls back on yearend puff pieces and redundant bulletins about holiday travel.
The Asahi Shimbun alone dedicated five pages — not five articles, five pages — to Abe’s stunt, including a strongly worded editorial enumerating everything wrong with the decision, both practically and morally. Almost all media outlets condemned it, even the knee-jerk-conservative Yomiuri, though their editorial insisted that China and South Korea had no right to complain since “how the prime minister of one nation mourns its war dead is not a matter for interference from other nations.” What they found regrettable was that Abe would so recklessly give those two countries ammunition to attack Japan.
But what really rankled the press was the reaction of the United States, which said it was “disappointed” in Abe’s pilgrimage. The choice of adjective was thoroughly parsed, since the Japanese equivalent, shitsubō, is hardly used outside of literature and translations of English text. In that context it conjures up visions of 1960s American family-oriented sitcoms. “I’m not mad, son,” says Dad gravely to the miscreant teenager, “just . . . disappointed.”
Such condescension is built into the U.S.-Japan alliance, but the foreign ministry was still shocked. An anonymous source within the ministry told an Asahi reporter that he thinks since it was Christmas, the U.S. State Department was understaffed and hit on “disappointed” too hastily. The source was genuinely bewildered: What’s the matter with those Americans? Don’t they know they’re only encouraging the evil designs of China and South Korea?
Timing was everything, and as it happens most of the weekly magazines had already finished editing their New Year’s issues on Dec. 26 and weren’t able to capitalize on the story. Mainstream news reports made it sound as if Abe had simply woken up that morning and decided it was a great day to commune with the spirits of dead soldiers.
The consensus is that he wanted to visit the shrine to commemorate one year in the premier’s seat and was looking for any excuse to do so. Asahi columnist Takashi Odajima blamed Facebook, where Abe’s page received 40,000 “likes” for his visit. As Odajima points out, FB doesn’t allow for “dislikes,” so any feedback Abe has gotten from the service in the past year has always been positive. Abe’s wife told Tokyo Shimbun that she’s the only “opposition party” in his immediate orbit, that none of his advisers has the guts to caution him when he’s about to do something dumb. In any case, only people with strong convictions express opinions on social media and in letters-to-the-editor sections, and most Japanese have bigger worries than whether or not Abe is sufficiently “religious.”
So the best excuse was provided on Christmas Day, when the Nikkei broke 16,000, a symbolic achievement that doesn’t prove Abenomics is a success, but Abe likely interpreted it as such. His relatively high public support numbers are based on those economic initiatives rather than his personal aim to make Japan over in its old image.
In the prime minister’s mind, Abenomics is a means to more desired ends: changing the Constitution in the long run and giving him license to visit Yasukuni in the short run. “Abenomics” is a brilliant neologism from a PR standpoint, but etymologically it’s fraudulent since the scheme was concocted by others. Even the controversial state secrets bill that the Liberal Democratic Party rammed through the Diet several weeks ago wasn’t Abe’s idea, even if he wholeheartedly approves of it.
The only thing Abe cares about is honoring the memory of his beloved grandfather, former class-A war crimes suspect and Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. It’s why his first term as PM in 2006-07 was so frustrating: Not only did Abe fail to start the process of revising the national charter, Kishi’s most cherished goal; he couldn’t even visit Yasukuni to honor the men whom his grandfather had a hand in sending to their doom.
The seeming success of the LDP’s financial strategy has allowed him the luxury to do that, in his mind at least, even if the act itself undermines Japan’s financial situation by angering its biggest trading partner, China. That’s why both the Asahi and the Yomiuri condemned the visit. The two papers usually move in opposite directions on principle, but they agree that Japan can’t go forward economically without China’s help.
America’s help is another thing entirely, and however many brownie points Abe sacrificed because of the Yasukuni jaunt, they were recovered the next day when Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the government’s application to go ahead with landfill operations for the proposed Henoko air base in Nago. As with the Yasukuni story, most of the commentary on Nakaima’s decision focused on its contentious nature, but also like the Yasukuni story, the main impetus behind the actions reported was economic.
As Okinawa International University professor Hiromori Maedomari explained in Tokyo Shimbun, Nakaima has always been “weak when it comes to money,” and now that the LDP—which he used to belong to—has agreed to honor the prefecture with what the governor called “an amazingly great” budget, he is reciprocating with the base go-ahead, though he denies that the former was a condition for the latter.
Nakaima’s nod, however, does not guarantee the base will be built. Some believe it will never be built, but underlying the argument about Japan’s security needs — and, beyond that, whether or not Okinawans are shouldering a disproportionate amount of this security burden — is money. Cynics believe the movement to remilitarize Japan has less to do with right-wingers wanting to reclaim the capacity to wage war than with America wanting another market for its weapons manufacturers — just as they say that America can never really take Japan’s side in a war against China because Beijing holds too many U.S. treasury bonds. Money, as the song goes, makes the world go ’round. In Japan, it greases the gears of nationalist sentiments.