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Spirits of Japan shrine haunt Asian relations

Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have irked the region's diplomats, but policy has domestic support in Japan.

Last Modified: 02 May 2013 12:10
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Japanese lawmakers follow a Shinto priest to pay their respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo [AFP]

Tokyo, Japan - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been stoking passions across East Asia recently, asking whether or not Japan had ever committed aggression during World War II. He also approved a trip made by government ministers to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

The shrine, a memorial to those who have died in the service of the Japanese emperor, is detested in much of the continent, as some believe it to glorify Japanese militarism. Indeed, fourteen "Class A" war criminals, including the nation's wartime leader Hideki Tojo, all executed for their actions in the Pacific theatre, were honoured by the shrine's Shinto priests in 1978. Clerics believe their kami, or spiritual essence, continue to reside there.

The Korean Peninsula spent half a century under Japanese military rule in the early 20th century, and mainland China suffered a series of invasions in the 1930s.

The diplomatic tensions which have broken out over these historical issues were widely expected after Abe took office in December and packed his cabinet with what several analysts have said are some of the most radical and outspoken politicians of the ruling party.

However, up until last week, the Abe administration had remained relatively subdued in its public statements and had focused on reviving the Japanese economy under the "Abenomics" programme.

But separate visits made by three Abe Cabinet members to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine broke this trend. The ministerial visits were then followed by a record 168 conservative lawmakers making their way to the memorial. Abe's widely reported questioning of the nation's history of military aggression came soon after.

In Seoul, the Japanese ambassador was summoned to the foreign ministry on April 25 and bluntly told: "Japanese leaders [need] to reflect on Japan's past aggression and colonial rule in an honest and humble manner through the mirror of history, and to immediately correct their retrograde perceptions, comments, and behaviour."

A planned visit by the South Korean foreign minister to Tokyo was abruptly cancelled. Beijing also informed the Japanese government that several bilateral events would be called off.

Perceptions differ

Many in mainland Asia believe that visits to Yasukuni Shrine reflect Japanese conservatives' lack of true remorse about a war which happened before most contemporary politicians were born.

China's Global Times commented in April: "China and South Korea have shown their shared outrage over the Yasukuni Shrine issue, but Japan seems to have disregarded this... The Yasukuni Shrine visits are evidence of Japan's reluctance to accept reality. Japanese society is becoming increasingly radical."

For their part, most Japanese politicians - and not only those associated with the current government - strongly assert that paying respects at Yasukuni Shrine should not be viewed as an international diplomatic issue at all and is, in fact, a matter of individual conscience or one of freedom of religion.

"Visits to Yasukuni should have nothing to do with politics," said Harunobu Yonenaga, a lawmaker from the opposition Your Party. "The media shouldn't even mention who visits and who doesn't.

"It should be a private issue about how you choose to honour our people who died in the World War."

Shunsuke Mutai is a parliamentarian from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

"This kind of talk has gone on for close to seventy years now and it is time to move on," he said. "It's simply no good to keep dredging up the past when what we really need to be thinking about is the future."

Despite such arguments, that issues of historical memory and the rememberance of those killed in war should be no one's business but Japan's, it remains the reality that China and the two Koreas continually take these matters to the highest diplomatic circles.

If [Japan] has a different perception of history, and aggravates the scars of the past, it will be difficult to build future-oriented ties.

Park Geun-hye, South Korean President

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, for example, observed last week: "If [Japan] has a different perception of history and aggravates the scars of the past, it will be difficult to build future-oriented ties."

The more liberal wing of Japanese media and some of the smaller political parties on the left counsel the government to take heed of these feelings.

Asahi Shinbun, for example, editorialised: "Diplomacy is built upon a relationship of mutual sensitivity. If one party arbitrarily dismisses an issue as inconsequential, there is absolutely no way to conduct diplomacy."

A standard response from many Japanese conservatives is that the Chinese and Korean governments are merely using these historical issues to distract their domestic audiences from the shortcomings of their own leadership.

"These governments use issues like the 'comfort women' and territorial problems with Japan in order to quell various kinds of dissatisfaction within their own countries," said the LDP's Mutai.

Yoichi Kaneko, a relatively conservative lawmaker of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, has suggested the country's leadership must not bow to diplomatic demands.

"In the short term our diplomacy may indeed be damaged over these matters, but in the long term I don't think that is necessarily the case," he said.

"If we compromise now, then China and Korea will only demand more and more compromises. Where will it end?"

International complications

Washington has not exactly rushed to the defense of its Japanese ally, a notable feature of the latest round of disputes in East Asia. United States officials have, however, confirmed that the US would defend Japan in the unlikely event of an actual military attack on Japanese-administered territories.

"Many [US] officials were concerned that Abe's ideological proclivities would, sooner-or-later, win out over his more pragmatic side," said Peter Ennis of the Weekly Toyo Keizai magazine.

"It is fair to say that the [Obama] administration is deeply concerned about the potential repercussions" of recent visits made by officials to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Of particular worry from a strategic point of view is that the Abe administration is allowing such "second-tier" historical and cultural disputes to undermine crucial regional efforts to face down North Korea after its rocket launches and alleged nuclear weapons tests.

"Diplomatic tension between [South Korea] and Japan is a huge obstacle to better joint defense planning, intelligence sharing, and potential cooperation in a real contingency on the Korean Peninsula," noted Ennis.

Other analysts suggest that these issues are complicating a rational settlement of sensitive territorial disagreements, such as that between Tokyo and Beijing over a tiny group of uninhabited islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and as the Diaoyu in China, believed to be located on top of hefty oil reserves.

Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Meiji University, believes that neither nation seeks a military conflict over these islands but that profoundly negative results could nevertheless emerge from any accident involving coast guard ships.

"There is no framework for crisis management between China and Japan, and there's no hotline between the coast guards," Ito said. "An inadvertent situation could create the worst scenario."

The lack of regional goodwill exacerbated by the Yasukuni Shrine visits makes the construction of the necessary diplomatic frameworks more difficult to achieve, analysts agree.

The Japanese people as a whole have gained negative feelings toward China and Korea. When it comes to diplomacy and national security, the political space for liberalism has disappeared.

Yoichi Kaneko, Democratic Party of Japan

Conservative shift

The recent intensification of the Yasukuni Shrine dispute is hardly the first time that the issue has rattled East Asian diplomacy.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in office from 2001 to 2006, repeatedly visited the shrine as Japan's national leader - leading to a virtual freeze in the bilateral relationship between China and Japan in particular.

Ironically, it was Shinzo Abe himself who helped repair the diplomatic damage when, as Koizumi's successor, he embarked upon a "friendship tour" in Beijing and then refrained from making personal visits to Yasukuni Shrine during his first term in office.

However, during his five-year period in opposition, Abe stated repeatedly that not visiting the shrine as prime minister was one of his greatest regrets. Many observers believe that Abe is planning a visit to the shrine on this coming August 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II.

Analysts differ on the severity of the crisis that such a prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni Shrine would bring, but there is a basic consensus that the nation's public has been gradually shifting in a more conservative direction, and is now more tolerant of Abe's ideological orientation.

With Abe's political party holding a huge majority in Japan's house of representatives, and with many opposition politicians supporting his stance on Yasukuni, he has little to fear in terms of domestic backlash.

The conservative shift is acknowledged by Yoichi Kaneko, of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "The Japanese people as a whole have gained negative feelings toward China and Korea," he said.

"When it comes to diplomacy and national security, the political space for liberalism has disappeared."

Follow Michael Penn on Twitter: @ShingetsuNews

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Al Jazeera
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