Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Abe Shinzo And Yasukuni – Restless Souls

This is a Masakaki offering
By Michael Cucek, Shisaku Blog for the Asia Policy Calendar, October 20, 2013 (an Asia Policy Point membership publication)

After months of wistful ruminations about paying respects to Japan’s warrior dead and numerous defenses of these pilgrimages, events of this past weekend suggest that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo will soon make his long-promised visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. It seems politically feasible. The result will be an inevitable period of deep freeze in relations with China, South Korea and even the United States.

The weekend began normally enough. On Friday (18 October 2013), Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide brushed aside questions about Abe visiting Yasukuni, after a parade of over 150 members of the Diet paid their respects at the shrine during the Shrine’s autumn festival. Suga assured the news media, saying, “China and the ROK are important neighbors for Japan, and we believe that we should see to it that the issues such as the Yasukuni Shrine do not influence the overall bilateral relations.” He subtly noted, “it is only natural to pray for the souls of, and show reverence to, those who sacrificed their precious lives for their country, whether at home or abroad.” (MOFA Press Conference 10/18/13)

On Saturday, October 19, Abe followed that it was “very regrettable” that he did not visit during his first Abe administration and that this feeling had “not changed.” (Note)

The next day, on national television, Abe’s friend and confidant Lower House Member Hagiuda Ko’ichi insisted that Abe would pay his respects at Yasukuni before the one year anniversary of his return to the premiership. Abe was elected prime minister on 26 December 2012. When pressed on this assertion, Hagiuda explained that he and the Prime Minister share an understanding of having a duty to visit Yasukuni at least once in every calendar year.

Hagiuda is a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Deputy Secretary-General. Although the Tokyo 24th District Representative is in only his third term in office, he seen a playing a role of special political adviser and sounding board for Abe. In the past few months he has undergone a transformation from an obscure, low-ranking member of Abe’s Machimura Faction to an unofficial spokesman for the administration.

This promise/threat to visit Yasukuni guarantees little positive movement in Sino-Japanese or South Korean-Japanese relations for a good long while. There will certainly be no bilateral meetings. Why would anyone in the Chinese or South Korean governments, much less President Xi Jinping or Park Geun-hye, want to be caught in a photo frame with any member of the Japanese government, with an Abe pilgrimage to Yasukuni impending?

Since his inauguration, Abe has been trying and failing to secure any kind of meeting with either Xi or Park. So far, he has been unable to win even a short conversation on the sidelines of any multilateral summit from either of the leaders of the two other big regional powers. Not even the LDP's thumping win in the July House of Councillors election diminished the calculated chill in the relations.

The deep freeze in relations extends to the entire Cabinet. The first ministerial trilateral meeting of any kind was a meeting of the three education ministers in late September, over nine months after the naming of the current Cabinet. It remains the only time the governments of the three countries have sat down at the table together.

The continued rejection of Abe by his counterparts has been deeply humiliating to the Prime Minister. It is only the extraordinary authority of Suga and the support of the CEO’s of Japan’s deeply China-invested multinationals that has kept Abe from visiting Yasukuni out of spite.

Hence, the subtle genius of Hagiuda’s giving of advance notice of an impending visit. When asked about the lack of contact with his counterparts, Abe can now explain: “Of course I want to talk to Xi and Park. But they know I am going to visit Yasukuni by year's end. Meeting with me right now could get them in hot water at home. So I understand their being unwilling to be seen in public with me. I don't take their standoffishness personally.”

A clever transformation of a lemon into lemonade, if that is what it is.

On the international front, Abe has made a point during his numerous trips abroad of visiting Japanese war cemeteries. These visits have laid the groundwork for a Yasukuni visit, on the order of “I now want to pay my respects to Japan’s war dead here at home, after having done so many times overseas.”

Abe’s solemn visits to cemeteries and national war memorials abroad highlight the real paradox of a Yasukuni visit. Although Yasukuni is a religious site, the goal of a modern Yasukuni pilgrimage is almost never to show reverence. The goal instead is to transgress -- to thumb one’s nose at polite global society; to thumb one’s nose at Korea and China; to thumb one's nose at the San Francisco Peace Treaty and its 26 signatories; to thumb one's nose at the Military Tribunals for the Far East; and to thumb one's nose at the leftists and members of religious orders who suffered under the Meiji Constitution regime.

A visit to the Meiji era Yasukuni Shrine provides its participants with an adolescent thrill of being conspicuously bad with few consequences.

Abe always had limits on how long he would delay a Yasukuni pilgrimage. Although it has been possible for Abe, or more properly his surrogates, to explain his glaring absence as necessary for keeping East Asian politics on an even keel, Abe at some point has to answer for his expressions of regret for having not made the journey during his first stint as prime minister. That Chinese and South Korean governments have been so ungracious toward Japan’s elected officials despite all the self-restraint makes the decision to disregard diplomacy easier. As a politician, Abe has to address the growing chorus of outraged supporters who have been disappointed by his caution.

The wild card in Abe’s deck is the reaction of the Obama Administration. That an Abe visit to Yasukuni would likely lead to a sharp deterioration in government-to-government relations was made clear by Secretary of State John Kerry’s and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s singular wreath laying at the Chidorigafuchi Memorial Cemetery—an ossuary for the unknown war dead (only identified war dead can be enshrined at Yasukuni). Japanese liberals have long championed Chidorigafuchi, part of the cluster major institutions ringing the Imperial Palace and only a five minute’s walk from Yasukuni, as a more proper venue for Japanese cabinet members to visit. Having the U.S. Cabinet Secretaries make a show of bypassing Yasukuni for the unenshrined drew a clear red line around the Yasukuni precincts. “Do Not Enter” was the message. At least in terms of Yasukuni’s autumn festival, Abe got it.

Now that the autumn festival has ended, and the memory of the Kerry/Hagel wreath laying fades, the question becomes whether Abe and his advisers sense purpose beneath U.S. displeasure. Pressuring Abe to avoid Yasukuni is meant to smooth greater cooperation between America’s two treaty allies. However, U.S. entreaties to South Korean officials to drop their anti-Japanese posturing have had no effect. In time, it is reasoned, South Korean intransigence will wear down U.S. resistance to Abe fulfilling his dream.

Abe, furthermore, is on solid historical ground in believing that at the end of the day, U.S. governments are only mildly annoyed by Yasukuni. Koizumi Jun’ichiro paid annual visits to Yasukuni, shrugged his way through a five-year deep freeze in relations with China and was punished by President George W. Bush with stays at the Crawford ranch and a private tour of Graceland. Not so shabby, as they say.

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