By Nicholas Hamisevicz
On December 26, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial Shinto shrine that honors Japanese war dead, including fourteen Class-A war criminals. The visit is unlikely to do much harm to Abe domestically, but foreign policy in the region will be a casualty. The visit confirms South Korean and Chinese perceptions about Japan’s return to a more nationalistic and militaristic approach to foreign affairs and, along with other recent events in Northeast Asia, makes for a difficult start to the new year.
Despite knowing the backlash that would occur in China and South Korea, along with the signals from the U.S. to take a different approach to honoring Japan’s fallen soldiers, Prime Minister Abe made the trip to the shrine. Abe has tried to employ damage control, but at this current time, nothing could diminish the anger from Japan’s neighbors and the disappointment from the United States. The move has given the policy high ground back to China and South Korea and will make it more difficult for the U.S. to encourage them to work with Japan.
Movement appeared to be growing for better interaction between South Korea and Japan. Polls suggested the South Korean’s were willing to support a summit meeting between President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe. There also seemed to be an increasing frustration in the U.S. with South Korea for not responding in a more proactive way to some of Japan’s gestures. But now after Abe’s Yasukuni visit, as Karl Friedhoff wrote on the Korea Real Time blog, the Park Geun-hye administration has been vindicated for not pursuing opportunities for a summit meeting with Abe. There may be some military and defense interaction with South Korea and Japan in 2014, most likely in the trilateral context with the United States; however, other meetings, especially a summit meeting between Park and Abe and even between the two foreign ministers, are unlikely to occur.
Prime Minister Abe may hope to ride out this period of anger over his visit in return for a longer lasting benefit of better relations with the United States. It appears the Okinawa government has approved a deal to relocate a U.S. military base on the island; an original agreement was reached in 1996. This is an important move for the U.S.-Japan alliance and for security in the region. Abe may try to point to this enhancement to the U.S.-Japan alliance and the growing China threat as evidence of larger issues in Northeast Asia than his Yasukuni visit.
But the damage is done. Abe’s visit has confirmed the perceptions in China and South Korea that his administration is making Japan more nationalistic, militaristic, and misinterpreting Japan’s history. Reinterpreting and possibly revising the Japanese Constitution appears to be the next step, another move that will anger South Korea and China. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, along with Jang Song Taek’s purge in North Korea and China’s recently declared Air Defense Identification Zone, provide little evidence for a positive start to 2014 in Northeast Asia.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.