Japan & the Yasukuni Shrine: Regional Implications of an Assertive Abe

17 Aug, 2013    ·   4091

Annie Tacho looks into the impact at the regional level of the recent visit by Japanese ministers to the Shrine

On 15th August 2013, when South Korea was commemorating its independence from decades of Japanese occupation, three Japanese cabinet ministers visited and paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine. Yoshitaka Shindo, Minister of Internal Affairs, Keiji Furuya, Chairman of the National Public Security Commission, and Tomomi Inada, Minister In-charge of Administrative Reform, went to the Tokyo shrine to mark the 68th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War.

Around 100 other Japanese lawmakers also visited the Shinto shrine but Prime Minister Shinjo Abe himself decided to forgo the visit to the shrine in order to avoid any tension in the East Asian region. The neighbouring countries, especially China and Korea have unfavourable memories of Japanese aggressions committed during the Second World War and its links with the shrine. China and South Korea see the shrine as a reminder of brutal Japanese war time attrocities. Despite Japan’s apologies, official visits by the various Prime Ministers seems to portray Japan’s unrepentant stance and lack of sincere apology to the victims of Japan’s war time crimes.

Nevertheless, Abe sent a ritual offering to the shrine at his own expense and as a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. The visit to Yasukuni shrine by high level Japanese officials has always been shrouded in controversy. The shrine was originally established to enshrine the war heroes, however in 1978 it was decided to enshrine 14 class-A criminals that had major roles in committing atrocities during the Second World War and were branded as war criminals.

In the past, various official visits by Japanese Prime Ministers have been meted out with sharp criticism from abroad. Whereas, Japanese cabinet members visit to the shrine is part of an assertive Japan under Abe, his decision not to go himslf hints that he may try to keep a moderation in Japanese new assetation. In a way, Abe appears to seek strengthening of Japan’s political and economic relations with China and South Korea but at the same time, does not want to fully give up on Japanese historical legacies as well as his policy of strong Japan. In recent time, Japan’s stiff with China over Senkaku/Daioyu Islandds seems to have become a major hindrance in blilateral relations of both the countries. To the extent that China and Japan seems to have run into troubles in establishing any grounds for a proposed Xi-Abe summit meeting. Similarly, Japan and South Korea also had strained relationship over their dispute on Dokdo/Takeshima islands along with other historical issues such as issue of ‘comfort women’.

The recent visit of Japanese leaders to the shrine was seen in South Korea negatively. The main opposition party head, Kim Han-gil and other party leaders of South Korea deemed the visit as ‘unacceptable’ and warned Japan against it. It was specualted that Abe government would be rethink about its plan to visit the shrine as it may further ire Beijing and Seoul.

Nevertheless, Abe government went ahead with the plan, though with some moderation as Abe himself decided not to personally visit the shrine. In response to the visit by nearly 100 Japanese lawmakers to the Yasukuni shrine, Beijing summoned Japan's ambassador to condemn the event. “Only by seeing history correctly and learning from it can Japan embrace the future. We urge Japan to follow its promise to seriously examine its history and win the trust of international society through actions, Otherwise relations between Japan and its neighbouring countries will have no future.” added the ministry spokesman Hong Lei in a statement on its website. South Korean President Park Guen Hye in her speech on the day of commemorating South Korea’s Independence Day said that controversies over Japan’s colonial rule were “darkening the future of bilateral relations” between both the nations and she urged Japan to “face history” to mend relations with its neighbours.

Therefore, there seems to be a major task for the Abe government to try and mend its deteriorating relationship with its neighbouring countries mostly when Beijing and Seoul seems to be agreeing with each other over Japan’s undue sovereign claim over various disputed islands and rocks. The government should try to keep away from historical controversies which tends to always bring back the memories of brutal war-time crimes and despite Japan’s time again apologies, always seems to put Japan in a tight spot for various reasons. Next on October 2013, Shinzo Abe is supposed to make a visit at the Yasukuni shrine. There seems to be a storm brewing in East Asia with all eyes set on Abe, whether or not he will visit the shrine as he promised during his campaign for the Prime Minister’s office and how Beijing and Seoul would take it up and thus, how the inter-state relations in East Asia would move forward in the future.