The visit of Japanese prime minister Abe to the Yasakuni Shrine fueled tensions between Japan and its neighbors, drawing harsh rebuke for the glorification of militarism and a lack of concern for past atrocities. Yet, the controversial trip was domestic political ploy from Abe, and the limited international response shows that the gamble might have paid off.
When Shinzo Abo recently visited the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo to pay his respect to Japan’s casualties of war, he was predictably met with strong condemnations from the governments of China and South Korea. It was the first time in 7 years that a Japanese prime minister visited the controversial Shinto temple, which houses the souls of nearly 2.5 million people killed in action, including more than 1000 convicted of war crimes during World War II.
For the countries that suffered greatly during the occupation by Imperial Japan, the event shows Japan’s inability – or unwillingness – to fully recognize past atrocities and moreover to attempt to glorify its militaristic history.
Japan’s neighbors are particularly angered by the veneration of 14 high-level war criminals that were convicted under the Tokyo trials, and by the Shrine’s description of the genocidal Nanking Massacre as an “incident”. The much-publicized visits by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ignited annual diplomatic rows with Beijing and Seoul. After Koizumi’s last visit in 2005, China responded by canceling a scheduled meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, who was traveling to Beijing to strengthening Sino-Japanese ties.
Chinese authorities have in the past allowed public, anti-Japanese demonstrations to take place when relations with Japan have been particularly strained, such as during the 2005 textbook controversy or in 2012, when the Japanese government purchased the disputed Senkaku islands from their private ownership.
This time Beijing has instead decided to express its frustration via diplomatic channels and has solicited diplomatic support from Russia, Germany and Vietnam. China realizes that economic sanctions would damage its own economy and that violent public protests would hurt its international image, and leaders are also aware that an aggressive response could further empower the nationalist camp in Japan.
The symbolism of the Yasakuni pilgrimage plays into the larger power struggle that has unfolded in East Asia in recent years. The Shrine works as a rallying issue for Japanese conservatives and nationalists, who seek to amend the country’s pacifist military policy and adopt a more aggressive stance towards China’s growing assertiveness. Hawkish Shinzo Abe has effectively portrayed himself as a strong, decisive leader and has cautioned Japan to resist Chinese attempts at changing the status quo.
The timing of his pilgrimage was not coincidental as it occurred only two months after China angered most neighbouring countries by unilaterally declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed territorial waters. Paying his respect to the souls at Yasakuni is a symbolic, yet powerful way of strengthening his domestic power base and furthering his conservative cause.
Incidentally, the name Yasakuni translates to “peaceful country” in Japanese. It is perhaps fitting that Abe released a statement after the visit where he said he “renewed my determination before the souls of the war dead to firmly uphold the pledge never to wage a war again”. Yet, he very well knew that the trip would be highly provocative to the neighbors and in this aspect it was a closely calculated manoeuvre.
Tokyo believed the potential diplomatic losses would be minimal as both China and South Korea had already ruled out any top-level summits due to strained relations, and the increased regional fear of China in return meant a greater tolerance for Japanese actions. If judged by the relatively soft international response, it seems that this gamble paid off.