Shrine visit a worrying signal of Abe’s 'militaristic, anti-China' streak: analysts
Abe's actions nudge his country further right and reflects a lack of restraint in potentially escalating regional tensions, experts say
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s inflammatory visit to a Tokyo war shrine demonstrates his determination to drag pacifist Japan to the right and nudges northeast Asia a significant step closer to conflict, analysts say.
Frayed ties in the region will be further damaged by what Abe claimed was a pledge against war, but what one-time victims of Japan’s aggression see as a glorification of past militarism.
Abe’s forthright views on history – he has previously questioned the definition of “invade” in relation to Japan’s military adventurism in the last century – have raised fears over the direction he wants to take officially pacifist Japan.
“His ultimate goal is to revise the [pacifist] constitution,” said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University. He is “arrogant and running out of control”.
After a creditable performance in getting Japan’s chronically underperforming economy back on track that has kept his poll numbers respectable, Abe is now spending his political capital pursuing pet nationalist issues.
He sent shockwaves around the region when he went to pray at Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, the anniversary of his coming to power and just days after approving the second consecutive annual budget rise for Japan’s military.
Partly, the money will be used to buy stealth fighters and amphibious vehicles intended to boost Japan’s ability to defend remote islands, the government said, citing fears over Beijing’s behaviour in a row over the sovereignty of an East China Sea archipelago.
Nothing to lose?
Ed Griffith, a specialist in Sino-Japanese at Britain’s Leeds University, says the calcified positions on the islands led Abe to conclude he had nothing to lose by visiting the shrine.
“Abe has always wanted to pay a visit to the shrine as prime minister, but the threat of ruining Japan’s relationship with China has previously been enough to keep him away,” he said.
“However, with the dispute over the Diaoyu islands [known as the Senkakus in Japan] taking the relationship to its lowest point since 1945, he clearly no longer sees that as an impediment.”
After months-long jostling by paramilitary boats and planes, relations deteriorated further when China declared an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea in November, including the airspace above the Diaoyus.
Beijing says the islands have been its territory for hundreds of years and were snatched by Japan in the opening stages of its empire-building romp, which culminated in the brutal subjugation of swathes of China.
Like Yasukuni, they stand as a symbol in Chinese eyes of Japan’s unrepentant militarism, and as a proxy among the Japanese Right for righteous nationalism.
China’s press on Friday called for “excessive” counter-measures after the shrine visit.
“China has made it abundantly clear that visits to Yasukuni Shrine by a serving prime minister cannot be tolerated,” said Griffith. “With Xi Jinping still in the early stages of his leadership, he cannot afford to be seen as weak.
“In the context of the unresolved dispute in the East China Sea, that is very serious indeed.”
For Takehiko Yamamoto, professor of international relations at Waseda University, the visit was the natural extension to Abe’s efforts to ape his staunchly nationalist grandfather.
Nobusuke Kishi, a cabinet member during the second world war who was arrested, but never convicted, for war crimes, was prime minister in the late 1950s and is remembered for fighting leftists and his desire to slough off the US-imposed constitution.
“Abe is regressing to the Kishi doctrine,” he said. “He has implemented national security measures since taking power almost as if there is something in his DNA that has made him do it.”
Echoes of pre-war Japan
Critics say the legislation represents a real threat to freedom of the press and democratic governance, and recalls the repressive laws used to silence dissent in pre-war Japan.
Abe dismissed the qualms, insisting stricter rules on keeping secrets are necessary if Japan’s leaky bureaucracy is to win the trust of allies like the United States, and vital for the new, US-style National Security Council he established, which concentrates diplomatic and defence powers with a handful of ministers.
But it was his explosive visit to Yasukuni that proved the icing on the cake.
Around 2.5 million souls are enshrined there, the majority of them common soldiers, but also including senior officials executed for war crimes, like General Hideki Tojo, the prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbour.
“[This visit] was an action that gives the strong impression that Japan is leaning towards the right, towards militarism,” Yamamoto said. “It is certain that this will create a new destabilising factor in northeastern Asia.”
For Jia Qingguo, an international relations expert at Peking University, Abe is engaged in a dangerous game of chicken for domestic reasons.
“The calculation is this: If you stand up against China … for whatever matter, then you appear to be strong and heroic” at home, he said.
“I think it makes the already very difficult relationship between the two countries more difficult.”
Hitotsubashi’s Kato agrees, warning that neither side is prepared to back away.
“Even if [this visit] does not mean an immediate war,” said Kato, “a small clash at the border is now much more likely.”