Editorial: PM Abe's visit to Yasukuni could isolate Japan from rest of world

A Dec. 26 visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with Japan's war dead, could raise suspicions both in Japan and the international community that he wants to obscure Japan's World War II responsibility.

The visit, on the first anniversary of the inauguration of the Abe Cabinet, will adversely affect Japan's diplomacy, making improvements in Japan's relations with China and South Korea more difficult and even causing the United States to lose trust in Japan. The prime minister's decision to visit the shrine was wrong.

"I have renewed my determination before the souls of the war dead to firmly uphold the pledge never to wage war again ... I have also made a pledge that we must build an age free from the suffering imposed by the devastation of war," Abe said as he explained his reasons for visiting the shrine.

It was the first such visit by an incumbent prime minister since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about seven years ago in 2006. In addition to the shrine's main hall, Abe paid a visit to the Chinreisha remembrance memorial to pray for the souls of all the people, regardless of nationality, who lost their lives in the war but are not enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine.

Based on the notion that it is natural for the leader of a nation to mourn its war dead, we have insisted that the government pursue a solution that allows anybody to mourn the war dead without feeling any lingering sense of discomfort. However, Yasukuni Shrine is not the right place for the prime minister to commemorate war victims, as those who led Japan into the last war are also enshrined there.

Class-A war criminals -- who were convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East of "crime against peace" by leading Japan into the war -- were enshrined at Yasukuni in 1978, only 33 years after the end of World War II. Behind the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals is a view of history denying the legitimacy of the tribunal and Japan's aggressions on Asia.

After the war, Japan accepted the results of the tribunal -- also known as the Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals -- by signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty that came into force in 1952, which brought Japan back into the international community. However, any visit to Yasukuni by a Japanese prime minister could give the international community the impression that Japan does not reflect on the history of Japan's involvement in the war, is trying to revise that history and is challenging the postwar order.

A note left by former Imperial Household Agency chief Tomohiko Tomita shows that Emperor Showa stopped visiting Yasukuni Shrine as he felt a sense of discomfort with the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals there.

Prime Minister Abe has denied that he paid his respects to war criminals when he visited the shrine. However, Abe is apparently skeptical of the outcome of the Tokyo Tribunal and wants to deny that Japan invaded its Asian neighbors during the war. The prime minister has told the Diet that "the definition of invasions has not been established," which could be interpreted as denying Japan's wartime aggression. He also described the outcome of the Tokyo Tribunal as Allied "victors' justice."

Even if the prime minister did not intend to revise history, he should have considered how his shrine visit would be viewed both in Japan and overseas.

The U.S. government of President Barack Obama is wary of a tilt to the right by the Abe administration, and urged the prime minister not to visit Yasukuni Shrine. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came to Japan in October, they visited the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, to pay their respects to Japanese soldiers who died in the war instead of Yasukuni, reflecting the Obama administration's attitude to the Yasukuni issue.

Observers say that Abe chose to visit Yasukuni Shrine at this time as he deemed that he could minimize its impact on the Japan-U.S. alliance, where prospects are good for breakthroughs in bilateral security issues such as the relocation of the U.S. military's Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture.

However, his view has proven overoptimistic. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a statement to the effect that Washington is "disappointed" that Prime Minister Abe has taken action that will "exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors." It was an extremely strongly worded statement for an ally.

The United States is pursuing new a relationship with China while at the same time confronting the country. A recent Japanese Foreign Ministry survey showed that the largest percentage of U.S. citizens picked China as the most important Asian partner for their country, overtaking Japan, which dropped to second place. One cannot help but wonder how Abe intends to rebuild mutual trust between Tokyo and Washington.

The prime minister has repeatedly said that "the door is open for dialogue" with China and South Korea. However, he has erected a stumbling block -- a visit to Yasukuni -- in front of the door to better relations. He has failed to express a vision for Japanese policy toward East Asia, as if to say that those who would not open the door are at fault.

There are growing risks of unexpected conflicts breaking out at sea and in the air around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, also claimed by China. Beijing's declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea has increased tensions in the area. There is now no prospect that Japan can hold talks with China in the foreseeable future over the creation of an urgently needed mechanism for avoiding crises in the area.

Prime Minister Abe is likely to seek to open the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense as early as next spring by changing the government's official interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. However, such a policy change is unlikely to win the understanding of the public or Japan's neighbors and allies as long as Abe takes actions that call into question his interpretation of World War II.

His visit to Yasukuni Shrine could adversely affect public opinion, already split over how to mourn the war dead. The government had previously considered separating Class-A war criminals from the war dead and building a non-religious national memorial for war victims. However, the prime minister went ahead with the controversial shrine visit without resuming such discussions. This will only widen the gap between those in favor of these ideas and those who are opposed.

Prime Minister Abe has reiterated that it was "extremely regrettable" that he failed to visit Yasukuni Shrine during his first administration in 2006-2007. By his visit, he appears to have placed priority on his personal political beliefs over national interests. One cannot help but fear that the prime minister chose to develop the Yasukuni issue into a diplomatic problem, isolate Japan in the international community and set Japan on a new track that we believe risks damaging the national interest.

December 27, 2013(Mainichi Japan)