Japanese opposition leader Shinzo Abe and two cabinet ministers had a simple calculation to make when considering whether to visit the Yasukuni war shrine. Was the potential support from right-wing voters in upcoming elections for honouring the nation's soldiers, convicted war criminals among them, worth further damaging relations with China and South Korea? Domestic politics went first, with predictable results. Beijing and Seoul are outraged and ties, already strained over territorial disputes, have plummeted anew.
Nationalist-minded Abe knew what he was walking into. He has been to the shrine many times, though he heeded warnings from Japan's neighbours, victims of its wartime aggression, to stay away while prime minister in 2007. His predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, visited in each of the six years he was premier, prompting violent anti-Japanese protests in China and South Korea and a diplomatic crisis. With Abe in a strong position to regain power in elections that have to be called before next summer, his latest decision sets a terrible example.
Current prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has made a point of not going to the shrine, and for good reason: regional tensions are already hot and are likely to boil over should he make so rash a decision. Japan's purchase of three of the Diaoyu Islands from their Japanese owner has raised the risk of conflict with China as increasing numbers of patrol boats from both sides ply surrounding waters to protect sovereignty. The Chinese backlash has affected a number of Japanese companies in China and hurt tourism. Nationalism was in part behind Noda's purchase of the islands and as pressure grows to call the election, it will be an increasing temptation for politicians.
As much as nationalistic causes may be seen as vote-winners, the urge to turn to them has to be resisted. Abe has said he regretted not going to the shrine while prime minister, but after his visit on Wednesday, could not be drawn on what he would do if he again took office. China's economic importance to Japan and its companies should answer that question for politicians thinking of using the nationalist card.