By J. Berkshire Miller, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum. The views expressed are his own.
“Japan is back,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced to a packed room at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington back in February. The remarks came during his first visit to the United States since he returned to power in a landslide election in December. But while Abe’s aggressive stimulus policies have sent his approval ratings soaring at home, Japan’s neighbors have been watching much more warily.
Abe, regarded by supporters as a pragmatist, but as a dangerous nationalist by many Chinese and South Koreans especially, is no doubt aware of the trepidation his return to office has engendered in East Asia. Indeed, he took the opportunity during his CSIS speech to temper fears that his hawkish campaign statements over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with China would be put into action, declaring “I have absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder.”
Yet despite the soothing words, a series of clumsy remarks over the past few months – and a botched effort at handling the controversial Yasukuni Shrine issue – have eroded much of any benefit of the doubt Abe may have enjoyed on coming to office.
It wasn’t just his recent photo-op in a Japanese fighter jet that has caused a stir. Last month, for example, Abe indicated to the Japanese Diet that he would authorize "decisive action" if China attempted to occupy the Senkaku islands, a statement that had the potential to reignite a row that has seemed in the past year to be in danger of spinning out of control. (Although Beijing hasn’t been shying away from upping the ante, subsequently labeling the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as a “core national interest.”)
But the most troubling development has been the visits of four cabinet ministers, most notably deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe refrained from visiting, instead choosing to donate a masakaki tree branch to the shrine. But the symbolism of government ministers visiting a site where Class A war criminals are enshrined has enraged not just China, but also South Korea, which urged the Japanese government “to immediately halt anachronistic acts oblivious to the past history and take responsible measures based on the correct recognition of the history to recover trust from neighboring countries.” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se also canceled a scheduled trip to Japan in response to the move, while Beijing accused Japan of “denying” its history through such actions.
These visits, though, surely did not come as much of a surprise. Abe visited the shrine last October, when he was leader of the opposition, saying his intention was “to show respect to the spirits of the war dead who gave their lives for the country.” And Abe took a defensive line in response to the virulent criticism from Seoul and Beijing, stressing that his cabinet “will not yield to any kind of intimidation” and pointing to the “freedom to express one’s respect and worship the precious souls of the war dead.”
So, who is right here? The truth is that there are a number of misconceptions about Yasukuni. For a start, many seem under the impression that the shrine is devoted exclusively to the elite circle of powerbrokers of Imperial Japan. In reality, though, there are more than 2.4 million names enshrined at Yasukuni, with only 14 of those found guilty of Class A war crimes by the Tokyo Military Tribunals in 1945 enshrined. Also, the site is a symbol of remembrance for Japan’s war dead in a number of conflicts, not just World War II. For example, some of those enshrined lost their lives in the Satsuma rebellion in the late 19th century, while nearly 5,000 individuals are enshrined from Japan’s war efforts against Imperial Germany during World War I.
The problem for Japan is that none of this matters to many of its critics, the numbers and volume of which may well have grown in recent months. Shortly after the Yasukuni visits, the Financial Times, for example, remarked that Abe had finally let loose his “demons of inner nationalism.” The Asahi Shimbun, meanwhile, claimed Abe is “moving in exactly the opposite direction” from rapprochement with Beijing and Seoul. This is all despite the fact that despite some troubling rhetoric, Abe appears to be a genuine pragmatist focused on stability in the region.
The question for Abe, then, is whether he intends to plough on with an approach that is winning few PR points, and is overshadowing constructive moves such as signaling support for entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The fact is that although Abe is still popular, his insistence on turning attention back to history issues is making it harder for supporters defending the other tough choices and policies he needs to pursue to get Japan back on track.
And Abe appears to be aware of the danger that his reform agenda could be held hostage to the history issue – he has, for example, recently stepped back from earlier comments that his government may revise the Murayama and Kono statements, which serve as Japan’s official apologies for the atrocities it committed during World War II.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment about the past couple of months is the space these incidents have created for Abe’s critics. Small tokens of compromise, such as Abe’s offering of a maskaki branch, are inadequate. As Japan expert Jennifer Lind recently noted, “Japan’s unspun neighbors remained fixed on the unspinnable reality that a Japanese prime minister had just paid respects to war criminals.” Compromise and an ability to look to the future rather than the past will be required from all parties in East Asia’s prickly history wars. But if Abe wants to help reinvigorate Japan, he may have to show he is willing to set an example – and dull the ability of Seoul and Beijing to lash out.