Ever since I learned that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine at the end of last month I have been trying to guess what his motives for such an act could have been.

One motive could perhaps have been to ensure that members of the families of servicemen enshrined there would vote for Abe and his party at the next election. But no election is scheduled for some time to come and it is getting on for 70 years since the Pacific War ended.

Another motive might have been to appease the right-wing nationalists in the LDP and allied parties. But it hardly seems likely that these misguided extremists can pose a real threat to Abe’s hold on power. If Abenomics is successful he should be politically unassailable. So why bother about old “has-been” anachronistic politicians such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara?

Or could he just possibly have decided that he wanted to show the uppity Chinese and irritating Koreans that he would not stand for any nonsense from people who threaten uninhabited islets claimed by Japan? If that was indeed his motive, it is most unwise.

Japanese Self-Defense Forces are well armed and trained, but in any conflict with China’s modern and large armed forces Japan will have to depend to a significant extent on the United States. While the U.S. has supported Japan over the Chinese air zone, which covers the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. and other Asian powers such as the Philippines certainly want to avoid any accident or unforeseen incident that might provoke hostilities.

The maintenance of peace in the seas and air space around the Japanese islands must be a major Japanese national interest. Abe’s action in visiting Yasukuni, even if he pretends that he was going as a private citizen, was seen, in the light of history, by the Chinese and South Korean governments as provocative. Abe must have known this. If he did not have the good sense to realize this, his advisers would have been aware of the likely Chinese and Korean responses and have warned him accordingly.

The visit was briefly noted by the British media but has hardly aroused more than a ripple except among those of us who have a real interest in Japan, its people and its culture. For us it is a troublesome sign that retrograde forces may be at work in Japan.

We understand the wish of the Japanese people to remember the sacrifices made by Japanese people, both servicemen and civilians, in a conflict that Japan could not win. It was a conflict that was totally unnecessarily prolonged by obstinate and obdurate military leaders who believed that Japan was different and the unbroken Imperial line would protect Japan from disaster.

When I lived in Tokyo, I enjoyed walking up to and around Yasukuni Shrine, although I shuddered at the way in which the museum seemed to glorify in actions that had led to so much human misery and deplored the fact that major war criminals were “enshrined there.”

The shrine should in my view be turned into a public park and the memorial garden in Chidorigafuchi should be accepted as the memorial to Japan’s war dead.

If Japanese want to think of the war dead as kami (deities) and continue to maintain Shinto shrines and rituals, that is a matter for each individual, but the fear among some observers is that Yasukuni Shrine, which played an important role in state-sponsored Shinto, might, through visits by government ministers, be used as a way to get some kind of renewed state backing for the shrine.

This in turn combined with attempts to inculcate patriotism and promote nationalist sentiment might lead to moves to re-establish some form of state Shinto with all that this implies for other religions in Japan.

I have recently been putting together a collection of reports from the British Embassy in Tokyo between 1967 and 1972, when Sir John Pilcher was ambassador. Pilcher was widely recognized as a friend of Japan who did all he could to promote better understanding of Japan in Britain and who worked hard for a successful foreign tour by the Showa Emperor.

Yet there is one disturbing theme that runs through so many of his reports. He saw signs of reviving nationalism in Japan and wondered how far it was likely that Japan could fit into the globalized world that was emerging. He doubted, as did many who worked with him, myself included, whether the Japanese authorities would ever really liberalize their economy.

As I look at how difficult it seems to be for Abe nearly half a century later to really fire his “third arrow,” I wonder whether our doubts were entirely wrong.

The Nihonjinron (or “we Japanese are different from all other people”) has been the subject of endless discussions. Few Japanese nowadays would, I suspect, want to maintain that being Japanese not only meant something special but made them so utterly different from other people.

Certainly I hope and think that no Japanese today would argue as some did half a century ago that Japanese snow was different from snow anywhere else and that therefore foreign skis should not be imported.

But how really international is Japan today? Is Tokyo as international as say Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai? All are different and for my part I would prefer to live in Tokyo. But sadly there are only a limited number of Japanese active in international organizations and too few Japanese bankers and businessmen stay long enough anywhere to become entirely at home in their foreign postings.

Unfortunately, too, Japanese students no longer flock abroad to study. In the case of Britain and America visa rules may be partly to blame, but only partly.

If Japan is to be, and to be seen to be, an international power respected and able to play an active role in the globalized world of today, Abe should avoid provocative actions such as visiting and praying at Yasukuni Shrine, and should show that he is a mature politician sensitive to the feelings of other peoples.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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