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The Implications of Abe's Yasukuni VIsit

Tags: Foreign Policy , Japan-US Alliance , History , Nationalism , Abe

Yakushiji, Katsuyuki

January 24, 2014

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Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on December 26 took the nation by surprise—as did the unprecedented backlash from the international community. Katsuyuki Yakushiji discusses the context and timing of the controversial visit and its implications for the Abe cabinet going forward.

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When Shinzo Abe took office as prime minister of the Japan for the second time, in December 2012, he pledged to place top priority on the economy, avoiding needless distractions and controversies. For a few months he made good on his pledge, pursuing bold expansionary policies while skirting ideologically fraught historical and constitutional issues on which he has staked out a hawkish position. Now he may be putting his legacy at risk by abandoning his pragmatic approach for a rightwing posture, as suggested by his controversial December 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to Japan’s war dead.

Abe has voiced revisionist, self-exculpatory views of Japan’s role in World War II and has recently shifted his focus from diplomacy to defense. But the Chinese and Koreans are not Abe’s only critics; he has also come under fire from top US officials. This harsh climate of international opinion poses tough challenges for the Abe cabinet in the coming year.

A Calculated Risk

Abe’s December 26 Yasukuni visit took many by surprise, partly because of its seemingly capricious timing. But in fact, Abe appears to have timed the visit very deliberately, with domestic and international circumstances firmly in mind.

Yasukuni Shrine. ©Stefano Costanzo
Yasukuni Shrine. ©Stefano Costanzo
Just a day before the visit, Abe met with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima with a view to breaking the logjam that has delayed the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Base Futenma. On December 27, the day after the Yasukuni visit, Nakaima announced his approval of a government plan to reclaim land for the construction of replacement facilities in Henoko Bay. Abe doubtless calculated that the positive implications of this news for the Japan-US alliance would outweigh any annoyance in Washington over his visit to Yasukuni.

The visit also came on the heels of several moves designed to bolster Japan’s position vis-à-vis China. In mid-December, Abe hosted a special ASEAN-Japan summit and met individually with the leaders of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an assertion of Japan’s strategic solidarity with Southeast Asia in the face of China’s growing power. On December 17, the cabinet approved the new National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program, which call for strengthening the defense of Japan’s southwestern territories, including the Senkaku Islands.

Meanwhile, Abe had yet to meet one-on-one with either China’s Xi Jinping or South Korea’s Park Geun-hye—nor was there so much as a glimmer of progress toward that goal. By the end of the year, Abe may have concluded that relations with Beijing and Seoul could scarcely get any worse, and he had nothing to lose by visiting the shrine.

Never one to act on impulse, Abe informed Washington in advance of his intent, sending an aide to meet with White House and State Department officials as well as with Japan experts with close ties to the government. The American response, it seems, was unanimous: Don’t do it. Abe ignored their admonitions, together with dire warnings from within his own Liberal Democratic Party. Informed of the prime minister’s intent, veteran LDP politician Fukushiro Nukaga, who heads a parliamentary league on Japan–South Korea relations, strongly urged the prime minister to reconsider, but to no avail.

Abe visited Yasukuni once previously as a member of the cabinet, but the fallout was minimal. As chief cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, he secretly paid his respects at the shrine in April 2006. Early the following August, with an LDP presidential race in the offing, he had the information leaked to the press. The news created a brief stir, allowing Abe to shore up his bid for the top post with support from the party’s right wing and influential groups like the Nippon Izoku Kai (Japan War-Bereaved Families Association). However, the story was soon eclipsed by Koizumi’s far more controversial visit to the shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

Abe’s well-timed leak thus gave him the political boost he needed while minimizing the fallout for his cabinet, particularly the impact on ties with China and South Korea. In fact, Abe made a point of visiting both countries immediately after he took office, thus taking a big step toward mending the ties that had frayed so badly during the Koizumi years.

Yasukuni Goes Global

This time as well, Abe chose his moment carefully, weighing the pluses and minuses. But he seems to have been unprepared for extent and intensity of the international reaction.

Any Japanese prime minister who pays his respects Yasukuni Shrine can count on a strong backlash from China and South Korea, attended by a temporary suspension of top-level contacts with the Japanese government. But until now, the reaction from other countries has been, at the most, muted. Previous visits have drawn little public criticism from Southeast Asia, let alone the United States or Europe. This time was different.

To begin with, the government of the United States, Japan’s chief ally, publicly expressed its “disappointment” with the visit. The overriding concern in Washington is the precarious security situation in Northeast Asia. Washington officials urged Abe not to needlessly exacerbate tensions with China and South Korea, and they were clearly annoyed by his refusal to heed their advice.

The criticism did not stop there, moreover. In an official statement regarding the visit, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton noted pointedly that “the EU has consistently emphasized the need to [promote peace and stability in the region] by handling disputes with careful diplomacy and by refraining from actions which can raise tensions.” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a comment saying that “the correct understanding of the historical past is an important basis in today’s relations of Tokyo with neighboring countries.” The US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called it “morally wrong” for the prime minister to worship at Yasukuni Shrine, and newspapers around the world published editorials and opinion pieces criticizing the visit.

Never before has a prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine elicited such widespread attention and criticism. What has changed since the Koizumi era?

The key factor is China’s growing power and influence in the international community. The spectacle of East Asia’s two largest economic powers baiting one another over territorial and historical issues, with no sign of compromise in sight, raises legitimate concerns not only in the region but around the world. Furthermore, as these tensions have risen, Beijing has outdone Tokyo in its efforts to sway international public opinion in its favor. To some degree these efforts have paid off, particularly in regard to the Yasukuni issue.

In short, China’s emergence as a major political and diplomatic force has transformed the Yasukuni issue from an internal matter with narrow diplomatic ramifications into a regional problem with serious implications for the security of East Asia. This makes it an issue of global significance and a natural focus of concern for the world’s major powers.

Jeopardizing Success?

The same factors that have made Yasukuni an issue of worldwide concern have also focused an international spotlight on Abe’s various statements about Japan’s role in modern history. In the West, the predominant view is that these statements reflect a dangerous tendency to justify and even glorify the colonialism and aggression that led to all-out war in the Pacific and ended with Japan’s disastrous defeat in World War II. Indeed, the climate of international opinion surrounding these statements is one of the reasons other countries reacted so strongly to Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

The December 26 visit was by no means out of character for Abe. He had already made it known that he “deeply regretted” not paying his respects there during his first stint as prime minister in 2006–07, and he had refused to rule out such a visit this time around. Nonetheless it was a dismaying departure from the kind of leadership Abe had successfully pursued since taking office in December 2012.

Abe had promised to concentrate on revitalizing the sluggish economy through quantitative easing and other bold measures, and for a while he kept that promise, with positive results. Thanks to the three-pronged policy popularly known as “Abenomics,” the yen’s value has fallen, stock prices have risen, and the economy is slowly growing. At the same time, Abe has taken steps to restore sustainability to government finances, as by proceeding with the consumption tax hike (from 5% to 8%) slated for April 2014.

Bolstered by the apparent success of these economic policies, the Abe cabinet had maintained an approval rating above 50%, and it looked as if Japan had embarked on a new era of political stability. Many doubted that Abe would jeopardize this success with a symbolic gesture bound to stir up controversy in Japan and overseas.

In fact, it was this very success that gave Abe the confidence to show his true colors. The shift began soon after the July 2013 House of Councillors election. The LDP’s landslide gave the ruling coalition control of both houses of the Diet, ending a long era of legislative gridlock. This essential task accomplished, Abe began to turn his attention from economics to the policy areas that interest him the most: foreign policy, security, and education. And this shift in focus has been accompanied by a sharp turn to the right.

In the months since the election, the Abe cabinet has effected drastic changes in national security policy. It created a new, centralized security-policy apparatus through the establishment of a national security council chaired by the prime minister. It also moved quickly, in the face of strenuous resistance from the opposition and the media, to push through a state secrets law, legislation long advocated by Washington to guard against leaks of any classified information it might share with the Japanese government.

The revised National Defense Program Guidelines and the newly drafted national security strategy, adopted by the cabinet simultaneously last December, call for the acquisition of surveillance drones and the creation of an amphibious unit designed to defend Japan’s outlying islands, measures clearly intended to counter China’s threatening behavior around the disputed Senkakus. Taken as a whole, this series of initiatives has brought about a decidedly hawkish swing in Japanese security policy at a time of unrelenting tension in the Japan-China relationship.

The Abe cabinet’s rightward shift is also apparent in the prime minister’s proposals for education, which include revamping textbook approval standards to ensure that textbooks include the Japanese government’s position on historical and territorial disputes and making patriotism and moral education official subject areas under the national school curriculum guidelines.

Abe’s revisionist views on Japan’s militaristic past have never been a secret. Questioned in the Diet about past Japanese aggression against China and other Asian nations, he evasively replied that “aggression” was an ill-defined term. He has repeatedly criticized the Kono statement apologizing for the military’s recruitment of wartime “comfort women” from Korea and other Asian countries, maintaining that there is no documentary proof of coercion. Unlike former Prime Minister Koizumi, who recognized the judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Abe insists that those convicted of Class A war crimes in the Tokyo Trials are not criminals under the laws of Japan.

In a report released on May 1, the US Congressional Research Service noted that “comments and actions on controversial historical issues by Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have raised concern that Tokyo could upset regional relations in ways that hurt US interests.” Abe’s behavior since the upper house election has surely exacerbated such concerns. In a statement marking the anniversary of Japan’s surrender last August, the prime minister broke with a two-decade-old tradition by dropping all reference to Japan’s aggression and omitting any expression of remorse or condolence toward the victims. He also skipped the customary pledge not to plunge Japan into another war. These were changes expressly ordered by Abe, according to sources in the prime minister’s office. The Yasukuni visit was not an aberration but a logical next step for the increasingly hawkish, right-leaning Abe cabinet.

The End of Consensus Politics?

What made Abe decide to show his true colors after so successfully subordinating his ideological impulses to the practical goal of economic revitalization?

One reason is doubtless a sense that his economic policies are on track and are producing positive results. In late December, the Nikkei stock index topped 16,000 yen for the first time in six years. With the economic numbers moving in a favorable direction, Abe apparently felt free to turn his attention to other matters. But the Japanese economy is scarcely out of the woods. Keeping the momentum going after the consumption tax hike goes into effect this April will be a difficult challenge.

Another big factor contributing to Abe’s new tone and focus is the ruling coalition’s unchallenged control over both houses of the Diet. The LDP’s landslide victory in the December 2012 general election drove the Democratic Party of Japan from power and gave the LDP-led coalition control of the House of Representatives. But for Abe’s first seven months in office, the opposition maintained control the House of Councillors and therefore had the ability to block controversial legislative initiatives. That changed after the July 2013 upper house election. The LDP’s landslide victory left the DPJ and the rest of the opposition decimated and divided. The ruling party now towers over an opposition fragmented into more than a half dozen parties, and many are predicting another extended era of one-party domination. This is exactly the scenario Abe had hoped for.

An additional factor is the absence of any serious dissent from within the party, a situation attesting to the LDP’s changing character. For many years this large and diverse party was essentially a collection of rival factions led by politicians with ambitions to become prime minister. This system naturally fostered fierce internal power struggles, but the electoral and political-funding reforms instituted from the mid-1990s on greatly diminished the role and influence of the LDP factions. Since around 2000, the selection of a party president has turned less on factional politics than on the candidates’ popularity with the voters and perceived ability to lead the party to electoral victory. This new dynamic has minimized the need for the prime minister to negotiate and compromise on policy.

The LDP’s success in the July upper house election and the cabinet’s high approval rating over the past year have put Abe in a particularly strong position within his party. No one in the LDP has had a word to say against Abe’s right turn, at least not in public. This is another reason the prime minister has felt free to forge ahead with his rightwing agenda in recent months.

Outlook for 2014

Needless to say, all of these trends will have a significant impact on the government’s performance in the year ahead.

On the diplomatic front, the two top items on Japan’s agenda should be summit talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and China’s Xi Jinping—neither of whom has met with Abe one-on-one since he took office more than a year ago. Unfortunately, in the wake of Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the near-term prospects for a thaw are virtually nil. Indeed, relations with China and South Korea could deteriorate further in 2014 if Beijing and Seoul take action in retaliation for Abe’s visit. Meanwhile, Abe seems intent on pushing for a looser interpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 so as to allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense—a move that could further heighten tensions in the region.

The US response is another concern. In principle, the prime minister’s defiant behavior is unlikely to change the important place the Japan-US alliance occupies in regional security, but it could impact the day-to-day conduct of bilateral security cooperation and communication. A planned teleconference between Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel regarding the Futenma relocation issue was abruptly canceled in the wake of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni. US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Japan in April, and unless Japan can offer some token of progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or other matters of importance to Washington, 2014 could prove a dismal year for Japan-US relations.

The government’s biggest challenge, however, remains the Japanese economy. After raising the consumption tax in April, the cabinet will have to decide whether to proceed with the next phase of the tax hike, which would push the rate to 10%. Faced with an economic slowdown, it will be tempted to hold off. Yet failure to act could seriously erode the markets’ confidence in Japan’s fiscal responsibility, with negative consequences for Japanese exchange rates and stock prices.

Revitalizing the economy while rebuilding government finances remains Abe’s most important task, and it is a daunting one. Can the prime minister give it the attention it requires even while pursuing his rightwing agenda? Abe himself has cited a failure to prioritize his agenda as a key reason for the downfall of his first cabinet, in 2006–7. One wonders whether he has truly taken that lesson to heart.

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