In most cases, the reason for a discussion of various issues regarding politics and policy, especially foreign, is that certain events have occurred shortly before the appearance of the text in which they are analyzed. In this case, what is getting special attention is an event which did not occur, but could very well have occurred. And what we are talking about specifically is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s refusal to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15 of this year, in breach of a tradition for so many of Japan’s political elite.
It would not be an exaggeration to say, that this day the behavior of the highest official in Japan would be carefully (and cautiously) observed not only by the Japanese themselves, but also the politicized Chinese, and apparently, by the Americans as well. And it is clear why.
Only at first glance does it seem that the question of the visit (or non-visit) of the Japanese Prime Minister to some spiritual place relates exclusively to the private life of the citizen, to which there should be no concern to all other citizens. In fact, in this particular case, this question goes directly to the problematic state of relations in a strategic triangle, which also includes the United States and China.
In turn, the prospects for development in the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole depend significantly on how this multifactor (political-economic-military) puzzle will develop within this triangle. Therefore, citizens of Japan and other (“leading” and “following”) countries have a “stake” in the event, the significance of which is determined by the specificity of the Yasukuni Shrine itself, and the date on which many believed the visit by the Japanese PM was scheduled.
The Yasukuni Shrine has a very distinctive place in a very complex Shinto system of animistic worship, which, according to experts, Buddhism had only a slight influence. In this shrine about two and a half million Japanese soldiers killed in various conflicts over the last 150 years are worshiped as gods.
For China, and consequently for the current political situation in the Asia-Pacific region, of particular importance is the fact that about 80% of the total number of those commemorated died during the Second World War, and for Japan the date that marks the end of that particular conflict is August 15, 1945. Moreover, among those commemorated are a number of top Japanese officials who were accused by the Tokyo Tribunal of war crimes during the war and executed in December 1948.
Thus, in the eyes of the Chinese, as well as the Koreans, the resumption in 2001 of pilgrimage by Japanese senior officials to the Yasukuni Shrine is a testament to, firstly, the lack of remorse in the war crimes that were committed during the war, and, what is even more important, the remilitarization of Japan.
Moreover, in Beijing and Seoul there is a further argument of the “material” plan confirming those suggestions. The Chinese and the Koreans are using certain trends in Japanese politics within the sphere of national security.
The situation is further aggravated by the existence of territorial issues in Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea. In particular, the deterioration of the political sphere of Japanese-Chinese relations is manifested in the ongoing series of conflicts involving the disputed islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu.
It is precisely the problem of territorial ownership of these islands that was the immediate cause for the termination in the summer of 2012 of any of the Japanese-Chinese contacts at the official level. Once again, it should be recalled that in this case we are talking about the relationship between two of the three leading powers in the region.
But as the third main regional player, the United States is showing less and less desire to be in a state of direct confrontation with China on minor issues, Washington has been sending unequivocal “message” to Tokyo over the course of the past six months: solve your issues with Beijing in a ‘constructive spirit.”
For Washington, one of the important features for such a “constructive approach” in the policy of a key ally with regards to the Chinese would be for the Japanese Prime Minister to not visit the Yasukuni Shrine.
It is difficult to say what was the main reason for Japan’s attempts to establish official contacts with the Chinese leadership, American pressure or concerns of how it may be beneficial to them, but most likely, it is both. In any case, since the spring of this year Beijing has been visited by unofficial, but symbolic representatives of the Japanese establishment.
However, in order for a meeting of leaders of both countries to occur within a suitable political venue (a signal for the resumption of formal bilateral contacts), a necessary condition had to be met. It is precisely for this fact that Shinzō Abe “abstained” from observing the August 15 tradition for the Japanese Prime Minister to visit the Yasukuni Shrine.
The author of this article hardly went out on a limb when he predicted earlier that Abe would meet this condition. Although, for the current Prime Minister, to take a pass on a scheduled visit to the Yasukuni Shrine was very difficult, but, as they say, he managed to do it; and now the road for a bilateral meeting with the leader of China, Xi Jinping, during the APEC summit is open to him.
And yet, despite the importance of what has occurred, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about the creation of a positive symbolic background for (at least) containing any further degradation of Chinese- Japanese relations and of the situation in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. In order to reverse it, it is necessary to introduce positive elements in all aspects of relations among the three, the United States, China and Japan.
Vladimir Terekhov is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Asia and the Middle East of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, and a columnist for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.