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Fukuda could resolve issue over Yasukuni by visiting

by Hisahiko Okazaki

I believe it would be good for Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to visit Yasukuni Shrine during the annual autumn festival. I am very well aware that the prime minister himself is extremely cautious about the visit. But, objectively speaking, the time is getting ripe to resolve the Yasukuni problem.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy of “not saying whether he would go (to Yasukuni) or would not go” was successful in its own way. Because Abe did not depart from the principled argument that visiting Yasukuni Shrine was inherently “correct,” such commentators as Shi Ping thought that the Chinese had no choice but to restrain their behavior that would provoke Japan since the Chinese did not know when the prime minister would make a visit.

This strategy of Abe may explain why China did not become worked up over such things as the elevation of the Defense Agency to a ministry and the referendum law on constitutional revisions by resorting to a rhetorical statement that there is resurgence of militarism in Japan.

Once a Yasukuni visit had been made, however, the strategy’s effectiveness would have come to an end, and it might have resulted in the Japanese prime minister never being able to make additional visits. I believe Abe was certainly thinking about how to break through that contradiction.

The fact that since Aug. 15 last year, Japan’s prime minister has not visited Yasukuni is an unusual situation. I believe that, had Abe remained in office, his intention would have been to make a visit in October in some form or other. However, I think that the main reason that China has exercised self-restraint in criticism of Japan is found at a deeper level.

Since the Tiananmen incident, China has been trying to direct people’s primary concerns from the democracy movement to patriotism, putting particular emphasis on avenging national humiliation in the past century, symbolized by the loss of Taiwan. That policy has been a resounding success. As a result, anti-Japanese feelings have become so strong a national passion that the Chinese government cannot control it. When it takes the form of mass demonstrations, there would be the possibility that it will become tied to complaints prevailing among the Chinese population and turn into a large antigovernment movement.

Therefore, since the demonstrations in the spring of 2005, the Chinese government has been unable to approve any more anti-Japanese demonstrations.

That’s the reason why, prior to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni during the autumn festival that year and on Aug. 15 of the following year, I was able to correctly judged to the effect that, since anti-Japanese demonstrations would not take place and that mistreatment of Japanese companies was impossible in China, the prime minister would be able to make visits to Yasukuni without encountering big problems.

Furthermore, as a result of China’s anti-Japanese campaign, a sudden change occurred in the feelings of the Japanese people in public polls. The people’s attitude, which up to then had been favorably disposed toward China, reversed itself and antipathy toward China became strong. Thus the so-called China complex, which had tied Japan’s hands with regard to diplomacy with China, completely disappeared. This will likely remain a major setback for Chinese diplomacy and will continue into the next generation.

Another reason why I believe that a chance has emerged to resolve the Yasukuni problem is the precedent set by former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s recent visit to Japan. The result was that Lee achieved a visit to Japan without any political constraints imposed on him. And China’s protests have not had any carry-over impact on subsequent Japan-China relations.

Actually, the fact that China did nothing more than hold brief protests is the same as what China did in the past when Lee visited the United States and Europe. It simply means that Japan-China relations have become the same as the U.S.-China and Europe-China relations.

There are times when governments must make protests over various matters between sovereign nations. However, it is best if that does not extend to other problems that would have an impact on the welfare of the people.

In the event Fukuda — for whom China has high hopes with regard to Japan-China relations in the days to come — visits Yasukuni, it is inconceivable that China can take any measures other than brief protests. And in that case, it can be said that Fukuda has resolved at one stroke a difficult problem between Japan and China that has gone on for over 20 years.

Also, although domestic politics is not my own field, it is not hard to imagine that the Yasukuni visit will sharply raise Fukuda’s approval rating. It is natural for a hawkish prime minister to visit Yasukuni Shrine and there would probably not be much of an impact on his approval rating. But even neophytes in domestic politics could predict that a Yasukuni visit by a dovish prime minister would result in an upswing in his approval rating.

There is the classical reverse example of U.S. President Richard Nixon, a hawk, achieving the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1972. As an example of resolution of a conservative agenda by a dovish leader, the administration of socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama put an end to the debate since the Cold War between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japan Socialist Party over the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, by saying that he would “firmly stand by the treaty.”

The resolution of the issue of extending the antiterrorism special measures law, which tops the conservative agenda, can as a matter of course be anticipated. Furthermore, it would also probably be beneficial if Fukuda returns to the traditional practice of first visiting the United States, then China — taking the reverse course of Abe’s visit to China. And if the issue of collective self-defense is not solved immediately, there would be the possibility that it would result in a situation in which missile defense, etc., would be in a bind.

It would be good if the prime minister make a Yasukuni visit during the autumn festival this month. One can say with certainty that it would not cause large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations or attacks on Japanese companies in China.

Of course, there are some risks involved. There is a slight possibility that China might be reluctant to hold summit conferences again, but there is no possibility of something happening that would affect the welfare of Japanese people.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The original Japanese version of this article appeared in the Sept. 28 Seiron column of Sankei Shimbun.