On the 69th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making an effort to tone down diplomatic tensions with neighboring East Asian states. Notably, Abe opted to refrain from a visit on Friday to the Yasukuni war shrine, a site loaded with political significance because of its association with Japan’s militarist past. Abe’s last visit to the shrine sparked outrage in China and South Korea and led to a marked downturn in relations between their governments and Japan.
This time around, the prime minister has been cautious not to provoke a new round of tensions, choosing to send a ritual offering to the shrine in his stead with a delegation of Japanese lawmakers visiting the site on Friday. Even this token gesture has drawn denunciations from Beijing and Seoul, an indication of how fraught the issue is. As the LA Times reports, both governments were vocal in their condemnation over the move:
South Korea “cannot but deplore” Abe’s offering and the visits by the Cabinet members and lawmakers, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said in a statement.
“Japanese politicians should be aware that only when they renounce historical revisionist moves and demonstrate genuine remorse through action, will the relations between [South Korea] and Japan move stably forward as wished by the peoples of the two countries,” the statement added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying echoed that criticism, saying the visits “once again demonstrate the Japanese government’s wrongful attitude toward historical issues.”
Despite their denunciations, Seoul and Beijing may be somewhat heartened by Abe’s reticence to stoke further tension with overt gestures towards Japan’s historical militarism. They are, of course, aware that the prime minister has his eye on an upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first between the leaders since they both assumed office in late 2012. The prime minister’s muted showing on Friday’s crucial anniversary is widely being interpreted as a move towards laying the groundwork for this significant diplomatic encounter.
Not unexpectedly, Beijing is giving the Japanese PM little room to leverage his conciliatory posture with its own public messaging around his Yasukuni offering. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency has lambasted the leader in a commentary posted on Friday:
Such a show of ‘compromise and sincerity,’ as some put it, is hardly acceptable, particularly given the recent barrage of remarks and moves by Japan’s rightist politicians which lay bare their unrepentant attitude toward the WWII.
Abe’s hawkish politics, including his government’s campaign to shift Japan’s decades-old pacifist defense policy, have given Beijing and Seoul ample ground to make their case against Tokyo. Even when Abe scales back some of his nationalistic posturing, as on Friday, it is in his rivals’ best interest to nonetheless emphasize his government’s troubling nationalistic tendencies. Such a focus helps to undermine Japan’s position in its ongoing disputes with its neighbors— particularly its territorial clash with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Given Abe’s tanking domestic approval ratings, a slump that has been linked to his reinterpretation of Japan’s defense policy, the premier is no longer facing down his regional rivals with the weight of Japanese public opinion behind him. His compromised domestic standing will no doubt factor as much into his political posture on regional issues as diplomatic considerations around his upcoming face-to-face with China’s leader.