Japan's PM Abe should rethink visit to war shrine

IF JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes to pray at the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, as all indications suggest he will, not only will it upset China and South Korea, but the United States as well.

During the shrine's recent autumn festival, Mr Abe sent along a monetary offering in lieu of a personal visit, thus averting another major tiff with Japan's two largest neighbours.

Yasukuni is viewed by Japan's past victims, which include many countries in South-east Asia, as a symbol of the country's past militarism.

The late Hisashi Inoue, a major figure in Japanese literature, once said that a visit to Yasukuni by a prime minister was tantamount to a public declaration that "Japan will choose war as a means of resolving conflicts". That is precisely why, both at home and abroad, visits to Yasukuni by Japanese lawmakers continue to elicit strong emotions.

Yasukuni is, however, not an intractable issue. Early this month, Washington even hinted at a solution.

At Washington's initiative, visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel laid a wreath at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery for the war dead in central Tokyo.

The non-religious facility, a quick 10-minute walk from Yasukuni, is state-run and holds the remains of the war dead which have not been identified.

The gesture by the two US officials was widely seen in Japan as a tacit message to Mr Abe that there is an alternative way of consoling the war dead that will not upset neighbouring countries.

Mr Abe claims it is only natural to pay respects at Yasukuni to those who have sacrificed themselves for the country. But many Japanese are against government officials paying homage at the shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals are honoured along with more than two million, mostly military, war dead.

Mr Abe has not made any effort to hide his nationalistic colours.

Washington knows it is dealing with a revisionist leader who has even declared in Parliament that the concept of aggression has not been defined, implying that Japan did not mount any war of aggression in Asia.

Japan's continuing friction with China and South Korea over territorial disputes has prompted Washington to take every opportunity to tell Mr Abe to make up with his neighbours. In particular, ties between Japan and China have been tense over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese also claim and call Diaoyu.

Washington is clearly anxious for Japan and China to calm down so as to avoid an unexpected outbreak of hostilities over the disputed islands, as the US could be dragged into the fray. Under its security pact with Tokyo, Washington is obliged to go to its ally's assistance.

But Mr Abe's obsession with Yasukuni virtually closes the door on dialogue with Japan's neighbours. The stalemate, however, cannot go on forever, with the rigmarole over Yasukuni repeated several times a year.

In their latest editorials on the subject, the Yomiuri Shimbun and other major dailies have called for a new national debate on a proposal - shelved in 2009 due to opposition by right-wing lawmakers - to build a secular memorial where Japanese politicians can pray for the war dead without causing diplomatic flaps.

In the past week, aides to Mr Abe have revealed that he is eager to go to Yasukuni, possibly by Dec 26, a date which marks his first anniversary in office.

Mr Abe would do well to bear in mind that if he insists on pandering to the nation's right wing and to his own narrow sense of patriotism by visiting Yasukuni, he risks freezing ties with China and South Korea even further. That is not good for Japan, or for the region either.

However much Mr Abe says it wants to enhance ties with Asean, if Japan remains isolated from two of the region's biggest players, regional frameworks such as the Asean plus Three and East Asia Summit will not be able to fulfil their potential.

Mr Abe also needs to consider carefully his country's relationship with Washington. Despite his wanting to boost Japan's own defence capabilities, Tokyo still depends on the presence of US military bases to counterbalance China's rapidly rising military power.

That means Mr Abe is duty-bound to help maintain peace in the region, not endanger it.

wengkin@sph.com.sg