Yasukuni Shrine

After soft-shoe shuttle, Abe's marching to a hardline beat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am

In the months before Junichiro Koizumi relinquished the Japanese prime ministership to Shinzo Abe in September, there were mutterings among the neighbours - and liberals at home - that Japan was replacing a hawk with an even fiercer member of the species.

Mr Abe had made clear his positions on North Korea, defence issues, the Yasukuni Shrine and education, among other matters, and was unlikely to change tack once in power, they concluded.

However, they were caught off guard by the early days of 51-year-old Mr Abe's administration, as he made high-profile and apparently open-arms visits to China and South Korea. Was he really going to take a softer line with nations with whom Japan has had a notoriously prickly past?

The answer, of course, is a firm no.

'I have met Mr Abe several times since he became prime minister and the most recent time we spoke, I could see a clear difference in him,' Fukui Prefectural University international relations professor Yoichi Shimada said. 'My immediate impression was that he has 'grown into' his job and he has become a lot more confident ... He will not be going back to the moderate stance that he had to begin with.'

Like many conservatives, Professor Shimada believes that the timing of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Japan is an unsubtle attempt to encourage Mr Abe not to pay his respects at the annual spring festival at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine.

'My impression is that there are not so many issues to be solved between Japan and China at the moment, but Beijing's primary objective, I believe, is to stop Mr Abe visiting Yasukuni by promoting an atmosphere of friendship,' he said. 'We have to be wary of that secret intent.'

One of the outcomes of Mr Abe's visit to China was an agreement to set up a panel of Japanese and Chinese scholars to re-examine the two nations' perceptions of history. In a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that led Japan to go to war against China, and of the Nanking Massacre, the fact both sides would be looking at how history is viewed and taught was welcomed.

But Mr Abe has taken much of the gloss off the achievements of the academics - who agreed on March 20 to look at some of the most divisive bilateral issues - by stating there is no proof that the Japanese government or the imperial armed forces ever forced the women of Asian nations they occupied in the 1930s and 1940s to serve Japanese troops in an organised system of brothels. Mr Abe later reiterated a 1993 apology for the suffering of the so-called 'comfort women' but did not accept Japanese forces bore any blame.

'I think he has been forced to show his true colours because he was doing so badly in the polls when he was trying to paint himself as a pragmatist and moderate,' Noriko Hama, an economics professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University, said. 'Tactically he may feel that he made a mistake.'

That will be particularly important, she believes, as the July elections for the upper house of the Diet draw closer.

Professor Hama is most concerned about Mr Abe's ambitions for future generations of Japanese.

'Education is his next battleground,' she said. 'He intends to make education here more 'patriotic' ... I expect him to put his own stamp on how and what Japanese children are taught.'

None of this has caused a public or media outcry. Indeed, regular government reports on issues, such as China's military spending, are often picked up by a generally conservative media and used to justify editorials demanding that Japan be ready to defend itself.

Similarly, Chinese companies are increasingly portrayed as taking Japanese companies' market share and as greedy for more.

And one of his firmest supporters, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, won re-election at the weekend despite a history of making virulently anti-Chinese statements.