Yasukuni Shrine

Abe's shrine visit stokes already tense regional relations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 3:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 3:31am

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally addressed a personal regret about his first term of office in 2006-07 - that he did not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to war dead, including convicted war criminals. Yesterday he became the first Japanese prime minister to do so in more than seven years, to the anger of China and South Korea. If Abe and his far-right supporters don't get the message about the threat such insensitive and provocative behaviour poses to regional stability, they no longer have any excuse. In a rare response, Japan's principal ally the US has expressed disappointment and noted that his actions would exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbours.

The shrine visit came on the first anniversary of Abe's second term of office, not at a time of year when Japanese officials traditionally pay their respects. This has given rise to speculation about the timing, including that he was taking advantage of the distraction of the festive holiday season in Western capitals and media.

He has chosen to stand up and be counted among his supporters, leading from the front on his conservative agenda to restore Japan's pride in its past with a less apologetic tone and break with the post-war US-imposed pacifist constitution. Last August, on the anniversary of Japan's surrender, he did not join other lawmakers who paid respects at the shrine, sending a ritual offering with an aide instead. This raised hopes of restraint, though he upset neighbours with a speech that omitted the usual expression of remorse for suffering caused by wartime aggression. There is a view among Japanese nationalists that prime ministers should not just visit the shrine during their term of office, but every year. It seems to have prevailed, with supporters having predicted that he would pay a visit within the first year of his current government.

It follows the Abe government's approval of measures that significantly increase defence spending and strength. This may be seen as in line with Washington's desire for Tokyo to take greater responsibility for its own defence under their military alliance, but the shrine visit mocks Abe's claim that it is "positive pacificism". Indeed, within minutes, Beijing condemned it in the strongest terms as glorifying Japan's "history of militaristic aggression".

Domestically, Abe is riding high politically amid signs of economic recovery. Externally, his policies further stoke the already tense relations between Asia's top three economies.