In his first four months in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had not made a false move -- until now. He and his government waded knee-deep into historical revisionism and right-wing ultranationalism, drawing the first real criticism of his new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since it won a landslide election in December.
In late April, when Asians pay respects to the dead, four members of the cabinet, led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and more than 150 members of parliament, made a pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. It honors the spirits of the Japanese war dead, but also includes those of 14 Class-A war criminals condemned and executed for plotting to invade neighboring countries during World War II.
Abe was not among the visitors, but his statements in defense of their visit were perhaps more bellicose than they had to be. “My ministers will not yield to any kind of intimidation," he told parliament defiantly. It is natural, he said, to express respect to those who have died for their county. He donated a tree as a personal offering.
The visits were condemned not just by South Korea and China, as one might expect, but also from opinion leaders in the United State and abroad. Both the Washington Post and New York Times denounced the visits, especially as they came at a sensitive time when relations with between Japan and its neighbors are strained and North Korea is making threats.
Washington made no official protest itself, but can hardly be pleased with this sudden shift toward Japanese nationalism. Its desire to bring Seoul and Tokyo closer together to form a united front against North Korean provocations is constantly undercut by these unnecessary and controversial pilgrimages to the shrine.
The last time the Yasukuni roiled relations with neighbors was during the long (by Japanese standards) administration of Junichiro Koizumi, who made annual visits to the shrine in his official capacity. Ironically it was his successor, Abe, who restored relations and goodwill with China by declining to visit the shrine, something he now says he deeply regrets.
The Yasukuni Shrine has long been connected with state Shinto and an ultranationalist and inflammatory interpretation of Japan’s actions in World War II as being a wholly selfless effort to liberate Asia of European colonialism. Needless to say, other countries occupied by Japan don’t see things that way.
During the first months of his administration, Abe successfully suppressed what the Financial Times called in an editorial his hidden “inner nationalism.” His plan was to concentrate laser-like on economic revival building up popularity, well aware that his unpopular focus on history and the constitution had undercut his government and led to his resignation after only one year in office in 2007.
It may be that his government’s continuing popularity as expressed in public opinion polls that show that more than 70 percent of Japanese approve of his initial moves to revive the economy, called “Abenomics,” may be going to his head and that he, to again quote the Financial Times, “let the mask slip.”
The general election for half of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament scheduled for July, was also said to exert some restraint, as Abe is very keen on winning. But the government seems to believe more and more that the election is in the bag. The recent landslide election of the LDP candidate in an upper house by-election on April 28 seems to support that notion.