Mr. Abe leaning the wrong way

The possibility has emerged that, before yearend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines not only Japan’s 2.46 million war dead but also Class-A war criminals from World War II. A visit to the shrine would signal his ignorance of the ideological role that Yasukuni Shrine played in Japan’s wars of aggression during the 1930s and ’40s. It also would show an utter lack of sensitivity to the feelings of victim countries in Asia and would further harm relations, which are already strained, with China and South Korea.

At this year’s regular spring and autumn festivals at the shrine, Mr. Abe made an offering of a masakaki tree branch — used in some Shinto rituals — after purchasing it with personal funds. He refrained from visiting the shrine itself.

On Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Mr. Abe made a cash offering to the shrine, using personal funds, as head of the Liberal Democratic Party, apparently to avoid friction with China and South Korea, which vehemently oppose ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine. But during his visit to Minami Soma, Fukushima Prefecture on Oct. 19, Mr. Abe said he greatly regretted not visiting the shrine during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, adding he would still like to express his adoration and respect for those who fought and died for Japan and to pray for the repose of their souls at the shrine.

Mr. Koichi Hagiuda, an LDP Lower House member and an aide to Mr. Abe in the latter’s capacity as LDP president, said Oct. 20 that he thinks Mr. Abe will visit the shrine by the first anniversary of his becoming prime minister for the second time in December 2012.

Mr. Abe’s rhetoric in expressing his respect for those who fought and died for the nation ignores the fact that Japan’s leaders sent more than a million Japanese men into war against China, starting in the 1930s, without identifying a convincing purpose of it. This conflict uprooted them from their normal lives and led to war with the United States. Both wars were reckless and caused enormous suffering to peoples of the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr. Abe also forgets that Yasukuni Shrine represented the top tier of official devices aimed at instilling a sense of respect and honor toward servicemen killed in action and their families: newspaper listings of dead servicemen’s names, memorial services, telegrams from the army and navy ministers, Kinshi Kunsho (Order of the Golden Kite) awards, and finally, enshrinement of their souls at Yasukuni. At the same time, these devices suppressed expressions of sorrow and any resentment over the personal sacrifices made.

On Oct. 3, U.S. State Secretary John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid flowers at the Chidorigafuchi cemetery. Located near Yasukuni Shrine, it holds the remains of unidentified Japanese servicemen who died overseas during World War II. Mr. Abe should take the two Americans’ actions as a cue that the U.S. would prefer that he visit this cemetery instead so as not to destabilize the diplomatic and security environment in Northeast Asia.

A visit to Yasukuni Shrine also could be taken as a rejection of the postwar Asia-Pacific framework established by the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which Japan accepted as a defeated nation.