Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave an important speech in the heart of London's financial district during which he bragged several times about the "political capital" that he had accrued through his party's landslide election victory in 2012, and the popularity of his economic program dubbed "Abenomics."
The reference to "political capital" was made in the context of pending economic reforms. He tried to reassure foreign investors that he had the clout to overcome resistance by vested interests in Japan that might stand in the way of his "third arrow" reforms to make Japan's economy more responsive to the free market and improve its competitiveness.
Instead, near the end of his first full year in office, he chose to spend a good chunk of his political capital not on opening free market reforms, but on pushing through parliament a highly controversial and probably unneeded "state secrets act" raising the penalties for leaking rather vaguely defined classified information.
Then he followed this up with a surprising Dec. 26 (one year after his election as prime minister) visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. He went, he said, to pay his respects to the shades of 2.5 million Japanese soldiers and sailors killed in wars stretching back to the Meiji era. But the shrine also includes the souls of 14 former officials convicted in the Tokyo Trials of waging aggressive wars in Asia.
It would be fair to say that the only people happy about the state secrets act passage were Washington officials, who reportedly pushed Tokyo to enact the law as part of closer military cooperation. The only ones who were pleased with the Yasukuni caper were the die-hard, conservative nationalists who see Abe as a soul mate.
The Abe government's public approval ratings, which had stayed remarkable high throughout his first year in office, took a hit. By some accounts the prime minster's approval rating fell into the low 50s (other polls put the figure higher). That is still a high mark in anybody's game, and much better than his predecessors, who by this time in their tenure were typically on track for resignation.
Most of the public opinion polls immediately after the Yasukuni visit showed little change. The Japanese do not view the Yasukuni shrine visits with the same sense of outrage demonstrated by the Chinese and the Koreans. Nonetheless, they are uneasy about it since they know that it damages relations with neighbors. They breathed easier when the anticipated anti-Japanese riots and boycotts failed to materialize.
Ironically, it was Abe, during his first term as premier, who repaired Japan's deteriorating relations with China by refraining to visit the shrine after his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had damaged relations by making regular pilgrimages. Until last month no subsequent Japanese premier had visited the shrine in his official capacity.