On December 26, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, drawing harsh criticism from Japan’s neighbors and a public rebuke from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Now that he has done it, what are the likely policy consequences?
As expected, outrage was expressed within hours by the governments of China and South Korea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang called Abe’s visit “an attempt to whitewash the history of aggression and colonialism by militarist Japan, overturn the just trial of Japanese militarism by the international community, and challenge the outcome of WWII and the post-war international order.” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was quoted in the People’s Daily saying that Japan’s prime minister was taking Japan in “a very dangerous direction.”
South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Choi Tai-young similarly noted that Abe’s visit “clearly shows his wrong perception of history. It is an anachronistic act that fundamentally undermines not only the ROK-Japan relations but also stability and cooperation in Northeast Asia."
Abe’s visit also invited reaction from the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a statement, noting U.S. “disappointment” at the prime minister’s choice. The U.S. Embassy statement began by noting that Japan was “a valued ally and friend," and ended with reference to the positive pledge Abe made to the effect that Japan would not return to its past.
Of course, there were lots of “I told you so’s” from Abe’s critics, at home and abroad. Twitter was full of comments and quotes from various regional media sources, as well as from experts who claimed to have known he would do it all along. For those in Japan, including some of the families of the World War II veterans enshrined there, this was a sweet victory. For the more right-wing voices resentful of Chinese and Korean criticism over an issue they feel is essentially a Japanese choice (some of which are found on the prime minister’s Facebook page), this visit will be seen as a demonstration of Japanese autonomy from foreign influence.
But Abe’s choice will limit Japan’s diplomatic options. The prime minister’s decision to visit Yasukuni creates more rather than less rigidities in a region already ridden with tensions over territorial disputes, popular sensitivities, and leadership rivalries. No matter how much the prime minister or his supporters may want this to be a domestic matter, it will have foreign policy and security consequences for Japan.
First, there is now little hope that Seoul and Tokyo will find a way through their difficulties to repair their relationship of economic and security cooperation. Over the past few months, growing U.S. concern about the Park government’s over-zealous concern with domestic politics and unresolved historical claims began to seep into the alliance conversations with both Seoul and Tokyo. Some effort to feel out possible avenues for political dialogue between these two U.S. allies was visible. The Yasukuni visit will end that effort, and Washington now will be far less likely to push for reconciliation. This means in effect that coordination on policy toward a turbulent North Korea, as well as trilateral reassurance on U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliance reforms, will become ever more difficult.
Second, the Yasukuni visit is likely to introduce yet another freeze in Japan’s diplomatic relations with China. The lack of a diplomatic dialogue gives Chinese leaders greater latitude for linking historical revisionism in Japan to differences over sovereignty claims in the East China Sea. Since coming into office, the prime minister’s handling of the island dispute and his assurances that his government would not escalate tensions in the region drew praise across the aisle in Washington. China, not Japan, was seen as the cause of tensions in that relationship. Moreover, Japan’s maritime difficulties with Beijing were seen as a source of common interest with others in Southeast Asia. But the Yasukuni visits are not only unpopular in China and Korea; they create concerns about Japanese ambitions across Asia, reminding all of a different era in regional history.
Finally, the decision to visit Yasukuni will diminish confidence that the Abe cabinet sees the risks in Northeast Asia in the same way as U.S. policymakers. The Yasukuni Shrine visit thus will introduce greater caution in U.S. thinking about the tensions in Northeast Asia. Japan’s long overdue security reforms, welcomed as pragmatic adjustments to the changing regional security environment, may now be viewed more carefully. Greater uncertainty about what motivates Japan’s choices will lead analysts and decision-makers alike to stop and ask whether each reform is evidence of a different agenda, one that relies on nationalist emotions rather than rationale strategic choice. This could slow progress on a host of alliance reforms, and demoralize those in the U.S. government anxious to upgrade alliance cooperation. (The timing of the Yasukuni Shrine visit was a particular disappointment for those working on Futenma relocation with Tokyo.)
For those in Japan who see the Yasukuni Shrine visits solely as an issue of domestic politics, these consequences may not seem reasonable or even relevant. Undoubtedly, there are those in Tokyo who will see the U.S. government’s reactions through the prism of partisan politics. Yasuhiro Nakasone in the mid-1980s and Junichiro Koizumi more than a decade later had Republican counterparts (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively) in office in Washington. But it would be a mistake to interpret the U.S. reaction in this way.
Abe faces a different set of strategic challenges than Nakasone or Koizumi before him. Territorial disputes, deep sensitivities over history and power, and a dramatic reordering of economic influence all combine to produce a combustible atmosphere in Northeast Asia. His Japan faces a far more complex environment, with far greater strategic risk.
Japan does not live alone in today’s Asia; its many friends rely on the values of a postwar Japan that shares their interests in peace and economic prosperity. The U.S.-Japan alliance remains a powerful tool for Prime Minister Abe, but the alliance cannot thrive in a state of uncertainty or frustration.
On this side of the Pacific, of course, there will also be frustration about the deliberate decision to ignore U.S. concerns. While some in Tokyo may see advantage in introducing unpredictability into Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, there is nothing to be gained by rattling Washington. There are few here that welcome greater tensions and acrimony in Northeast Asia.