Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe raised hackles across Asia and beyond on Thursday when he made a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese killed in World War II, including several convicted war criminals. South Korea and China have ongoing beefs with Japan over what they see as its inability to recognize wartime atrocities. Both were quick to condemn the move—the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2006—but the true implications are likely to play out over a much longer timespan.
The US is eager to prove that it still can keep the peace in East Asia, and Abe has just made that job much more difficult by enraging South Korea and China. The US state department’s discontent with Abe was clear in its statement following his visit to the shrine. It did offer up a caveat recognizing his comments at the shrine, but this is a case where actions speak louder than words:
Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past, to improve their relations, and to promote cooperation in advancing our shared goals of regional peace and stability.
We take note of the Prime Minister’s expression of remorse for the past and his reaffirmation of Japan’s commitment to peace.
Toyota, Nissan and Honda are still reeling from the repercussions of Japan’s government purchase of disputed islands, which triggered violent protests and boycotts against Japanese brands. A spokesman for Nissan, the top-selling Japanese carmaker in China, told Bloomberg it was “closely monitoring” developments, but noted, “as a company, we have no means to intervene in politics.”
Before Abe’s surprise visit to the shrine on Thursday, it was hard to imagine the vibe between these countries getting much worse—but now we’re about to find out how bad it can get. China and Japan have been in a dangerous standoff over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, and now there is a very real chance of Chinese street protests and stepped-up military stances, which in a worst case scenario could lead to actual hostilities.
Park Geun-hye has refused to discuss talks with Japan until the country made further amends for its conduct during World War II—a stance that earned her a lot of criticism, including from the US government, but now looks both principled and prescient.
Despite the volatile behavior of Kim Jong-un, who had his uncle and a series of top officials executed this month, North Korea has still been neck-and-neck with Japan in terms of how the countries are perceived by South Koreans. After Abe’s inflammatory shrine visit, even a dictator who executes people with anti-aircraft guns might not look so bad.
Jun Okumura of the Eurasia Group notes that after defying the United States on Yakusani, Abe is unlikely to push too hard against the US on the TPP pact, which is currently being negotiated to create a huge trade bloc to counterbalance China, or on the fate of the controversial Futenma Air Base in Okinawa. “If anyone in the Abe administration had any thoughts of letting down the Obama administration on either of these, well, forget about it,” Okumura wrote on his blog.