WhyItMatters

Goodwill undone by Yasukuni shrine visit

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects in Pearl Harbour this week, he used the words "reconciliation" and "tolerance" seven times each in what was a forward-looking message.

It was a hallmark moment for his "reconciliation diplomacy", more than 70 years after the end of World War II, which continues to cloud ties between Japan and its immediate neighbours, particularly China. The latter views with mistrust Japan's recent bolder security stance under the US-Japan alliance.

Japan endeavours to be a "normal country", with its Self-Defence Forces able to tackle such threats as Chinese militarism and a belligerent North Korea.

The Pearl Harbour visit was viewed favourably in Japan, where Mr Abe's popularity spiked to a three-year high of 64 per cent, according to one poll. A Hawaii daily, too, said it offered a "sense of closure".

But Defence Minister Tomomi Inada's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, a political cauldron, a day after returning from Pearl Harbour has threatened to undo the goodwill. The shrine honours 14 Class A war criminals among 2.5 million Japanese war dead, and houses a museum glorifying Japan's inglorious past.

Temple University professor Jeffrey Kingston said visits there are "a dead end" as the shrine presents the beliefs of right-leaning nationalists who staunchly defended Japan's aggression on Asia and the West.

 
 

Ms Inada, a close ally of Mr Abe, is also seen as a defender of Japan's wartime actions, and the timing of her visit has been seen to suggest unrepentance.

US officials were reportedly irked. Seoul, with which Tokyo bridged a divide with an agreement on wartime sex slaves, called it "deplorable". Beijing, which originally dismissed the Pearl Harbour trip as a shrewd stunt, termed the shrine visit a "great irony" that showed Tokyo's true intentions.

All this shows that as much as Japan moves forward to mend ties, its right-wing leanings mean that its wartime past remains - and will continue to remain - a potent political weapon for its neighbours.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Goodwill undone by shrine visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe