Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has made clear that he cares less about the feelings of Chinese, Koreans and other Asians than his nationalist agenda. His visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, in the knowledge that diplomatic relations with nations invaded and brutalised by Japanese imperial forces in the first half of last century would suffer, amply proved where his interests most lie. China has in the past greeted visits by politicians to the memorial to war dead, including 14 class-A war criminals, with outrage that often stirs anti-Japanese protests. Realisation that this has changed nothing has rightly prompted Beijing to take a better approach.
The response by Japan's neighbours to visits to the shrine by senior politicians has long been predictable. Beijing and Seoul have led the charge, angrily condemning them as an affront to past injustices that have still to be apologised for. In China, demonstrations are apt to break out and Japanese businesses targeted; sometimes, trade is affected. With Japan being one of China's biggest trading partners, the Chinese economy is at such times harmed.
Such responses have had no long-term impact. Right-wing politicians continue to visit the shrine and Japan is no closer to showing contrition or remorse. After Abe's visit on December 26, his first as prime minister, Foreign Minister Wang Yi adopted a diplomatic tack by seeking the support of Germany, Russia and Vietnam for China's position. Beijing inadvertently also won backing from the US: usually silent about such transgressions, it expressed disappointment with the Japanese leader's actions.
Yasukuni is a symbol to Asians of Japan's war-time aggression. Visits to the shrine rub salt into figurative wounds while amplifying the fact that the nation has still not done enough to come to terms with the crimes it committed. But a well-trodden path of protest has no bearing on nationalists with an agenda that includes denying the past. In such circumstances, the best response is to show restraint while lobbying governments that are on friendlier terms with Japan.