TOKYO - As the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender during World War II approached, the question on every body's lips was this: Will he or won't he? Will he or won't he personally visit the Yasukuni shrine in downtown Tokyo?
As it happened, Shinzo Abe visited other venues on August 15, eschewing a visit to the controversial war memorial, but the prime minister may have undermined the effect by trying too hard to simultaneously appease China and South Korea while pleasing his conservative constituency.
While the premier stayed away, two of his cabinet members showed up at the shrine. Abe himself sent an aide to the shrine with a personal offering. It was also widely noted that he refrained from voicing the customary regrets for the war and pledge to pursue peace.
As for mollifying the two important neighboring countries, Abe might as well have gone in person. The visits by the cabinet members triggered a formal protest in Beijing. South Korean President Park Guen Hye did not directly mention the Yasukuni visits, but urged Japan's leaders to learn the lessons from history.
Even the United States, which in the past has more or less ignored previous Yasukuni visits, issued some quiet warnings that conveyed its hopes that Abe would not escalate tensions in regions. Washington frets over deteriorating relations between the three Northeast Asian countries, all of whom it considers allies or friends.
One cabinet member tried to lessen the impact by signing the guest book as shijin, or private citizen implying he was not there in an official capacity. The state minister for North Korean abduction issues signed with his official title. Abe tried to play things down by describing his donation as coming from the president of the ruling party, not the prime minister. It is not clear whether other countries care about such subtleties.
That last time the Yasukuni Shrine matter roiled relations with neighbors was during the five-year administration of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi who visited the shrine every August 15 as prime minister. Ironically, it was his successor, Abe, who patched things up by declining to visit the controversial shrine during his first term as premier.
However, during the general election campaign in late 2012, he said that he very much regretted not visiting the shrine. That was taken as a pretty obvious signal that he would resume visits, and it is more than likely that he did intend to do just that and had to be persuaded either by his own advisors or by the Americans that this action now would be unwise.
Even without the shrine visits, relations with South Korea and China are increasingly strained over territorial disputes. It was one year ago that former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited the barely inhabited rocks claimed by Seoul as the Dokto and Japan as the Takeshima. Chinese vessels and aircraft regularly enter Japanese controlled waters and airspace around the Senkaku.