I shouldn't have been so surprised when I found out that newly elected LDP president, Shinzo Abe, visited the Yasukuni Shrine on Wednesday. Mr. Abe has always been characterized as a hawk, and his rhetoric is textbook right-wing politician. But because he already held the title of prime minister, I thought Mr. Abe was smarter than his predecessors and understood the ramifications of his words and actions.
Japanese politicians argue their visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is protected by their constitutional right to freedom of religion and that it is appropriate for policymakers to pay their respects to the 2.5 million warriors who died in the name of their country. I understand and respect this argument. And unlike a number of foreign spectators, I do not believe that those politicians who visit the shrine endorse the actions of convicted war criminals, nor do I believe that those politicians support Japanese militarism. Many politicians, and even former Prime Minister Koizumi, claim that their visits are to ensure that there are no future wars involving Japan.
But I hold prime ministers to a different standard than regular politicians. The leader of a nation must pay respect to his fallen comrades, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t offend the entire international community. The prime minister embodies all of Japan, and because of that, must watch what they say and how they act.
And Mr. Abe understands this. He knew what the geopolitical implications of visiting the shrine would be, and decided not to visit the shrine the entire time he was prime minister. Every time Mr. Koizumi visited the shrine, it strongly hurt relations with China and South Korea. His visit in 2002 upset a number of Chinese diplomats, resulted in cancelled meetings and started a mini China-Japan crisis. Mr. Abe clearly saw and comprehended how Japan’s relations in the region were falling apart due to the Yasukuni visits.
And yet he visits the Yasukuni shrine earlier this week, and during one of the tensest moments in modern China-Japan history. Maybe Mr. Abe is visiting the shrine to play into the anti-China sentiment and gain public support right before the election. Or perhaps when he becomes Prime Minister he will stop his visits. But these are lackluster excuses. Mr. Abe is the presumed successor of Prime Minister Noda, and his actions are being watched by top Chinese and South Korean officials.
Tension in the Asia Pacific benefits no one. And even though an armed conflict between China and Japan is highly unlikely, Mr. Abe’s visit is clearly flirting with danger. He is the leader of a major world power, and he must act like one. There is a difference between being a stern leader and being plain unaware of consequences. Visiting the shrine can not only bring diplomatic ruin, but it can hurt trade and the region’s economy.
The Senkaku Island crisis has led to an enormous drop in Japanese car sales in China, hurting the profits of companies like Toyota and Honda. China’s growing middle class is an important market for Japanese companies. Tension between the two nations will grow if Mr. Abe continues his visits, and that tension could lead to Japanese companies failing in China.
China can be one of Japan’s greatest economic and diplomatic allies, and I hope that, as the next prime minister, Mr. Abe can take the high road and initiate such a relationship.