AFP reporting by Harumi Ozawa on December 27, 2013.
Tokyo — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's inflammatory visit to a Tokyo war shrine demonstrates his determination to drag pacifist Japan to the right, and nudges northeast Asia a significant step closer to conflict, analysts say.
Already-frayed regional ties will be further damaged by what Abe claimed was a pledge against war, but what one-time victims of Japan's aggression see as a glorification of past militarism.
Abe's forthright views on history -- he has previously questioned the definition of "invade" in relation to Japan's military adventurism last century -- have raised fears over the direction he wants to take Japan.
"His ultimate goal is to revise the (pacifist) constitution," said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University. He is "arrogant and running out of control".
After a creditable performance in getting Japan's chronically under-performing economy back on track, which has kept his poll numbers respectable, Abe is now spending his political capital pursuing pet nationalist projects.
His trip to Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, the anniversary of his coming to power, came days after approving the second consecutive budget rise for Japan's military.
That money will partly buy stealth fighters and amphibious vehicles intended to boost Japan's ability to defend remote islands, the government said, citing fears over Beijing's behaviour in a row over the ownership of a Japanese-controlled chain.
Observers say China has stepped up the aggressiveness of various sovereignty claims against Japan and other Asian countries, setting nerves on edge throughout the region.
It has also invested heavily in its armed forces, and has no compunction in parading its military capabilities, sailing its battleships through narrow sea lanes between Japanese islands.
In November the world reacted uneasily to Beijing's unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea, including disputed islands, a move the US said was an attempt to change the status quo by force.
Ed Griffith, a specialist in Sino-Japanese relations at Britain's Leeds University, says Beijing's apparent intransigence led Abe to conclude he had nothing to lose by going to Yasukuni.
"Abe has always wanted to pay a visit to the shrine as prime minister, but the threat of ruining Japan's relationship with China has previously been enough to keep him away," he told AFP.
"However, with the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands taking the relationship to its lowest point since 1945, he clearly no longer sees that as an impediment."
Beijing says the islands have been its territory for hundreds of years and were snatched by Japan in the opening stages of its empire-building romp, which culminated in the brutal subjugation of swathes of China.
Like Yasukuni, they stand as a symbol in Chinese eyes of Japan's unrepentant militarism, and as a proxy among the Japanese Right for righteous nationalism.
"China has made it abundantly clear that visits to Yasukuni Shrine by a serving prime minister cannot be tolerated," said Griffith. "With (President) Xi Jinping still in the early stages of his leadership he cannot afford to be seen as weak.
"In the context of the unresolved dispute in the East China Sea, that is very serious indeed."
For Takehiko Yamamoto, professor of international relations at Waseda University, the pilgrimage was the natural extension of Abe's efforts to ape his staunchly nationalist grandfather.
Nobusuke Kishi, a World War II cabinet member who was arrested, but never convicted, for war crimes, was prime minister in the late 1950s and is remembered for fighting leftists and his desire to slough off the US-imposed constitution.
"Abe is regressing to the Kishi doctrine," he said. "He has implemented national security measures since taking power almost as if there is something in his DNA that has made him do it."
Earlier this month the government rode roughshod over objections from opposition lawmakers, media, lawyers and social rights activists to hammer through a far-reaching national secrecy law.
Critics say the legislation represents a real threat to freedom of the press and democratic governance, and recalls the repressive laws used to silence dissent in pre-war Japan. Abe dismissed the qualms.
But it was his explosive visit to Yasukuni that proved the icing on the cake.
Around 2.5 million souls are enshrined there, the majority of them common soldiers, but also including senior officials executed for war crimes, like General Hideki Tojo, the prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.
For Jia Qingguo, an international relations expert at Peking University, Abe is being deliberately provocative to prove he will stand up to China.
"I think it makes the already very difficult relationship between the two countries more difficult."
Hitotsubashi's Kato agrees, warning neither side is prepared to back away.
"Even if (this visit) does not mean an immediate war," said Kato, "a small clash at the border is now much more likely."