Late last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Japanese Shinto shrine meant to commemorate those who died in war since the Meiji Restoration. The visit by Shinzo Abe is particularly controversial because among those buried at Yasukuni include several war criminals executed by the Allies following Japan’s WWII defeat. While Yasukuni’s place in the national identity has never been fully resolved in Japan, it is widely regarded elsewhere, especially in China and the Korean Peninsula, as a symbol of Japan’s brutal imperial past.
As one might expect, Mr. Abe’s visit quickly provoked a strong and swift reaction from Beijing and Seoul, who both condemned him for attempting to play down imperial Japan’s atrocities and deliberately “tramping on the feelings of those who had suffered.” Mr. Abe, on the other hand, claimed that his visit was to pay tribute to the peace and to remind himself that “Japan must never wage war again.”
Given the complex and tumultuous modern history of Northeast Asia and the increasingly assertive and nationalistic nature of Chinese and South Korean leaders in recent decades, a state visit to Yasukuni by high-ranking Japanese officials is often portrayed as a provocation or even a “profane pilgrimage.”
Japanese politicians are not oblivious to their neighbour’s sentiments, evidenced by the fact that before Abe’s latest visit, no Japanese PM was willing to pay tribute to the shrine in the past seven years. Furthermore, the United States, Japan’s greatest ally, also warned the Japanese leadership not to reignite regional tensions by paying tribute at Yasukuni. Despite the obstacles, the decision to visit the contentious shrine was intriguing to many observers.
Northeast Asia’s Current State of Affairs And Shinzo Abe’s Promises
The three countries are largely economically mutually dependent, but the political relationship between them has been strained and unsteady over the years.
China is Japan’s biggest trading partner while Japan is China’s second biggest trading partner. However In 2012, relations quickly deteriorated after an intense territorial dispute over uninhabited islands. Most recently, tensions between the two resurfaced and reached to a new height as China “unilaterally” declared the extension of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and demanded planes notify Chinese authorities prior to entering the airspace. The enforcement of an ADIZ is common practice among sovereign nations, yet the one announced by China encompasses the still disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Mr. Abe claimed that his visit was to pay tribute to the peace and to remind himself that “Japan must never wage war again.”
As for the relationship between Japan and South Korea, while the two countries are integral to one another in trade, exchange of human capitals and ideas, there remain many unresolved political issues. In short, Japan is, as a specialist perfectly describes, currently facing a huge contradiction in its relation with the neighbors with politics and economies moving in completely opposite directions.
Back in late 2012, Shinzo Abe’s promise of pulling Japan out of the long-term economic recession helped him win back the seat as Japan’s leader. Undeniably, Japan is currently in the midst of an extensive economic recovery championed by Mr. Abe. Under his monetary and fiscal stimulus plan, popularly known as the “Abenomics,” Japan actually yielded some tangible results in the first quarter of 2013 and was well on its way to spend out of the slump. While Japan is recovering, it becomes logical and vital for Mr. Abe’s administration to play down, or even renounce, its nationalistic revisionist agenda in order to maintain at least an easy relationship with South Korea and China.
By doing so, as many commentators have pointed out, Japan will have a smoother path of integrating as well as being further in line with its neighbors and global community, all of which are critical to the economic recovery. With Japan’s economic future at stake and going contrary to the suggestions and warnings of experts and the US, one cannot help but wonder why Shinzo Abe still chose to visit the contentious shrine and began to pursue a nationalistic agenda. To fully understand this issue, we explore Japan’s political structure and certain aspects of Japanese culture in a future article.