Abe’s visit to Yasukuni stirs emotion

Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine to honour Japan’s war dead delighted conservatives at home but angered China.

Given his impeccable political credentials, Shinzo Abe must have done the maths. He was born, after all, into Japan’s political elite and is now navigating his way for a second term as prime minister through his country’s fickle political waters.

The calculation goes like this visit the notorious Yasukuni Shrine to the delight of conservatives in Japan who bristle at the way their seemingly unctuous politicians bend to foreign pressure. Pay respects to the country’s war dead that is due to them and which Abe has hinted for the past year that he would do. Isn’t that what those same conservatives voted for when they put him in power anyway?

But on the other side of the equation, is the intense anger such a visit would invoke from Japan’s neighbours, China chief among them. That China would respond so vociferously has come as no surprise. Perhaps more surprising has been the strength of its language. And with a warning that “Japan will ultimately bear the consequences”, we can expect a ratcheting- up of the rhetoric in the coming days and weeks. Watch out for the moralising editorials from the stodgier state-run media and more populist lashings from opinion pieces in the patriotic tabloids.

Abe knows the kind of reaction that is coming his way. The more cynical observers might dare suggest he could benefit from being the standard bearer of Japanese nationalist pride and the lighting rod for the Chinese reaction that nationalism provokes. Indeed, his calculating political mind might have brought him to such a conclusion.

For Chinese nationalist and hawkish elements, this controversial visit offers the kind of drum-beating opportunity they have not had since, well, the last incumbent Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, made a similar shrine visit in 2006. For those Op-Ed writers on a patriotic bent, it is the perfect defence for more assertive incursions around the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and for the unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Zone in the same disputed area.

“You want proof of the need to be ever vigilant against an increasingly hostile Japan that seems intent on conjuring up its old imperialist and militarist past,” they can pen, “Look no further than Abe at Yasukuni. You do the maths.”