Why Japan is willing to test China
Surging popularity and a growing sense that attempts to placate Beijing are not working have emboldened Abe's party to push back
The 168 Japanese politicians who visited Yasukuni Shrine yesterday were likely emboldened by the surging popularity of the right-of-centre Liberal Democratic Party, and may have concluded that a policy of self-restraint with Japan's neighbours is not working.
As the politicians, including representatives of some of the smaller parties in the Diet, were paying their respects at the spring festival, the Chinese ambassador to Tokyo was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and received an official protest over eight Chinese maritime surveillance vessels entering territorial waters around the disputed Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands.
Beijing disputes the sovereignty of the islands and said its vessels had been tasked with monitoring a flotilla of small ships reportedly carrying members of a Japanese nationalist group.
"I would say that the situation between Japan and China is deteriorating and that both side are incensed," said Jun Okumura, a political analyst with the Eurasia Group.
"And that does not only mean politicians on the right off the spectrum here are incensed," he said. "It is becoming more and more difficult for Japan to exercise self-restraint because, from a Japanese perspective, Beijing is escalating the situation."
What began with Chinese maritime patrol ships approaching disputed waters last year has evolved into violations of Japan's exclusive economic zone, he said, followed by fly-overs by Chinese civilian aircraft.
Probing by Chinese military aircraft drew a response from Japan's Air Self-Defence Force and now a record number of Chinese ships are what Japan considers its territorial waters.
Japanese politicians are concluding that self-restraint is not working, and that China is engaging on a game of brinkmanship.
"There is a major school of thought here that we have to stand up to China or they will walk all over us," Okumura said. "We're seeing that now - there is a simmering outrage and there is a growing possibility of further escalations."
Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, says there is a more fundamental reason for the larger-than-usual turnout at Yasukuni this spring.
"I don't think they have chosen to go in order to provoke a reaction from China or South Korea," he said. "They have gone there because conservative Japanese politicians are now of the opinion that not going to Yasukuni is succumbing to pressure from other countries."
South Korea, which also bore the brunt of Tokyo's pre-1945 militarist expansion in Asia, shelved a proposed trip to Japan by its foreign minister in protest against an earlier Yasukuni visit by Japanese cabinet ministers.
Okumura said the politicians of the ruling LDP are emboldened by the events of the last few days at Yasukuni. "They know their party leader supports them and they have already seen his deputy, [Fiance Minister] Taro Aso, make the visit," he said.
He said the true test of just how far right this administration is tilting will come in August, when the anniversary of Japan's surrender in the second world war arrives.
"Mr Abe might not say whether he is going or not, right up until the day, and he will be keen to maintain a degree of ambiguity because this is his first administration," Okumura said. "But I don't think he will go."
With four months and the long hot summer to escalate tensions around the disputed islands, attitudes on both sides may change dramatically.