Recent visits by three members of the Abe Cabinet to Yasukuni Shrine — which enshrines Japan’s some 2.5 million war dead plus convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II — show that they and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who permitted them to go — place more importance on their own personal ideological desires than on creating a regional atmosphere that would maximize Japan’s ability to advance its national interests and achieve its foreign policy goals.
Internal affairs minister Mr. Yoshitaka Shindo visited Yasukuni on April 20 and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya on April 21. Although Mr. Abe did not visit the shrine, he made an offering of a masakaki tree branch, which is used in some Shinto rituals.
The blowback from the Yasukuni visits came immediately. South Korea canceled its foreign minister’s visit to Tokyo this week, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated, “As long as Japan does not face up to the history of its aggression, it cannot embrace the future and develop friendly relations with its Asian neighbors.”
Nonetheless, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga merely said that “the Cabinet should not impose restrictions” on individual Cabinet members with regard to “emotional issues.” This statement ignores the fact that Yasukuni visits are directly related to the controversy over how Japan perceives its past colonial rule and wars of aggression in the 1930s and ’40s, and demonstrates his utter lack of sensitivity to the feelings of the victim countries.
The Cabinet members’ behavior has wrecked, at least temporarily, any chances of deepening cooperation among Japan, China and South Korea to forge a united front to deal with North Korea’s belligerent provocations including threats of more rocket launches and nuclear weapons tests. It also makes the territorial disputes that Japan is embroiled in that much harder to resolve. In the wake of Beijing’s angry reaction, Mr. Masahiko Komura, LDP deputy president and head of the Japan-China Friendship Paliamentarians’ Union, canceled his planned visit to China in early May because bilateral ties have become too tense.
Unfortunately, the “village mentality” that damages Japan’s larger interests is not limited to a few Cabinet members. Despite the uproar caused by the Cabinet members’ actions, 168 lawmakers visited Yasukuni on April 23 — the highest figure since 1987.
During his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, Mr. Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni. But he told the current Diet session that it was a “matter of the greatest regret” that he could not make the Yasukuni visit at that time, thus hinting that he may visit the shrine in the near future. If he does, Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea will suffer yet another blow.
Mr. Abe has also stated that he does not fully accept Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 statement in which he apologized to Asian countries for Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” causing “tremendous damage and suffering” to their people. Mr. Abe would do well to remember that the Murayama statement helped historical wounds to further heal and increased international trust in Japan. Any weakening of the statement would reverse these gains, making it more difficult for Japan to advance its national interests in the region. Even its security partner, the United States, would view such a move as reckless and damaging because it would raise already high regional tensions.