December 26, 2013
With Shrine Visit, Leader Asserts Japan’s Track From Pacifism
TOKYO — Shinzo Abe’s past year as prime minister has concentrated chiefly on reviving Japan’s long-ailing economy. Yet in Mr. Abe’s mind, the country’s newfound economic prowess is a means to an end: to build a more powerful, assertive Japan, complete with a full-fledged military, as well as pride in its World War II-era past.
That larger agenda, which helped cut short Mr. Abe’s first stint in office in 2006-7, has again come to the forefront in recent weeks, culminating in his year-end visit Thursday to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, including several war criminals who were executed after Japan’s defeat. Past visits by Japanese politicians have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered greatly under Japan’s empire-building efforts in the 20th century.
The latest visit set off swift rebukes from officials in Beijing and Seoul, who accused Mr. Abe of trying to obscure imperial Japan’s atrocities. And in a rare criticism of a close ally, the new American ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, also expressed disappointment with Mr. Abe’s government.
Mr. Abe has shown, however, that he is willing to take on big political risks to steer the country away from its postwar pacifism. Last month, he ignored blistering criticism from political opponents as well as the news media and steamrollered through Parliament a law that would tighten government control over state secrets. The law was presented by the government as a mechanism to aid in the sharing of military intelligence with allies, and create an American-style National Security Council.
Mr. Abe has also increased military spending for the first time in a decade, and loosened self-imposed restrictions on exporting weapons. A new defense plan calls for the acquisition of drones and amphibious assault vehicles to prepare for the prospect of a prolonged rivalry with China.
And experts say that next year, Mr. Abe could start taking concrete steps to reinterpret, and ultimately revise, Japan’s 1947 pacifist Constitution, something he has described as a life goal. Proposed changes could allow the country to officially maintain a standing army for the first time since the war, and take on a larger global security role.
“The past year has given Mr. Abe confidence to start flying his own colors,” said Koji Murata, president of Doshisha University in Kyoto. “He is signaling to his supporters that he is a politician who will fight for his convictions.”
Mr. Abe’s push is at once timely and risky. Regional anxiety over Beijing’s own rapid military buildup — and the relative decline of American influence here as Washington remains distracted by the Middle East — has seemed to set the stage for a more confident Japan. And tensions with China and South Korea have made a skeptical public more willing to accept Mr. Abe’s rightist agenda, including the establishment of a more robust military.
But territorial disputes, as well as sharp disagreements over the legacy of the war, also make for a dangerous backdrop to Japan’s rise. Japanese and Chinese patrol boats remain in a tense standoff near uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, prompting concern among some military analysts that a miscalculation or accident could set off an armed confrontation.
Japan’s relations with South Korea are at rock-bottom because of a separate territorial dispute and disagreements over interpretations of history. Raised hopes for a reconciliation after recent reports of a meeting involving vice ministers from the two countries have been dashed by Mr. Abe’s Yasukuni visit.
“Mr. Abe has poured even more fuel on the fire,” said Tetsuya Takahashi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo and author of a best-selling book on the Yasukuni Shrine’s role in Japanese politics. “That does not bode well for Japan’s relations in Asia at all.”
Mr. Abe walks a fine line in part because the many facets of his agenda do not sit well together. For one, good relations with China — Tokyo’s largest trading partner — are critical to Japan’s ongoing economic recovery. Experts warn that taking a belligerent stance toward Beijing could deal another blow to Japanese business interests in China, and to Mr. Abe’s economic agenda.
Nor do Mr. Abe’s deeply revisionist views of history — which he inherited from his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was jailed for war crimes before eventually becoming prime minister — inspire confidence that Tokyo can play a bigger security role in Asia.
Washington has generally been keen for Japan to take on a more active military presence in the region to counterbalance China’s growing might. But rather than become a stable ally, Tokyo has become another Asian problem for American officials because of its quarrels with Beijing.
When Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Japan in October, they paid their respects at a different cemetery for Japan’s unnamed war dead, in an apparent effort to nudge Japanese leaders away from visiting Yasukuni.
“In the end, Mr. Abe’s historical views diverge sharply from America’s,” Mr. Takahashi said. “After all, Mr. Abe does not believe in the postwar order that America established.”
Yet thanks to his early focus on the economy, Mr. Abe’s ratings of around 50 percent are high by recent Japanese standards; he faces no credible opposition and no nationwide elections are scheduled until 2016. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in July, giving it control over both chambers of Parliament, and the power to push through legislation.
Mr. Abe has, at times, worked well with the Americans. For example, he was personally involved in a long-stalled plan to move an American Marine base on the island of Okinawa.
“He began by focusing on economic revival, and cementing his support, which was wise,” said Eiji Yoshida, a professor of law at Kansai University in Osaka. “But he’s been waiting and waiting for the moment he can move on to his true agenda, and that moment is now.”
China has little room to maneuver after last month unilaterally declaring a new air defense zone over the East China Sea islands, raising alarm across the region. In a direct challenge to threats by China that it could take military action against foreign aircraft entering the zone, the United States sent two unarmed B-52 bombers through the airspace, after which China appeared to backpedal from its threats.
“China has already played its card. There’s little room for it to escalate matters over Prime Minister Abe’s visit,” Mr. Murata of Doshisha University said.
Some analysts say that Mr. Abe did his best to minimize the fallout from his Yasukuni visit. He avoided worshiping there during the shrine’s seasonal religious festivals, or during politically or historically significant anniversaries.
Many Japanese conservatives say the visit should not be so politically charged, because it was simply meant to honor the 3.1 million military personnel and civilians who perished in World War II.
Mr. Abe himself made that claim, saying he contemplated on the “preciousness of peace” as he paid his respects at Yasukuni.
Few analysts, however, think that he will now turn his full focus back to the economy. Instead, the new year is likely to mark new steps to change the Constitution.
Mr. Abe has said he would first push to reinterpret the Constitution to allow Japan to take action on behalf of allies under attack. But he has made no secret that he would seek a wide-ranging revision of the document itself, allowing Japan a national army.
“Perhaps the most important lesson of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is that despite claims that Abe is focused on economic recovery above all else, the prime minister does not believe that his mandate is limited to his economic policies,” said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, an advisory firm.
Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea. Patrick Zuo contributed research from Beijing, and Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno from Tokyo.