The winners and losers of Shinzo Abe’s inflammatory visit to a Japanese WWII shrine

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 United States

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L), Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C), Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (2nd R), and Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera pose for photos during their meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo October 3, 2013. The United States and Japan agreed on Thursday to modernize their defense alliance for the first time in 16 years to address growing concerns about North Korea's nuclear program, global terrorism, cyber intrusions and other 21st century threats. REUTERS/Koji Sasahara/Pool (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR3FJND
All for one… (Reuters/Koji Sasahara)

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.

Japanese automakers

A protester destroys an overturned Japanese-brand police car with an metal rod during an anti-Japan protest in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, August 19, 2012. Several Japanese nationalists landed on Sunday on a rocky island in the East China Sea at the heart of a territorial row with Beijing, sparking protests in several Chinese cities and a diplomatic rebuke from Beijing. REUTERS/Keita Van (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA - RTR36YMV
This is what happened the last time Japan pissed off China. (Reuters/Keita Van)

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.”

China-Japan relations

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (C) stretches out his hands toward Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan (R) and China's Premier Wen Jiabao at the start of 13th ASEAN Plus Three Summit on the sidelines of the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi October 29, 2010. Ties between China and Japan deteriorated last month following the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain by the Japanese coast guard after their boats collided near disputed islands in the East China Sea.  REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (VIETNAM - Tags: POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXTYQF
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung tries to get Abe and China’s Wen Jiabao to hold hands. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

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.


South Korea’s president

South Korea's President Park Geun-hye addresses a joint news conference with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (unseen) during a EU-South Korea summit at the EU Council in Brussels November 8, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM  - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX155AI
Know when to hold’em. (Reuters/Francois Lenoir)

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.

North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un holds up his ballot during the fifth session of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang April 13, 2012, in this picture released by the North's KCNA on April 14, 2012. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) QUALITY FROM SOURCE. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS - RTR30PN7
Still more popular than Japan. (Reuters/KCNA)

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.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks next to a map showing participating countries in rule-making negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo March 15, 2013. Abe announced on Friday that Tokyo will seek to join talks on a U.S.-led Pacific free trade pact which proponents say will tap vibrant regional growth, open Japan to tough competition and boost momentum for reforms needed to revive the long-stagnant economy. REUTERS/Toru Hanai (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS) - RTR3F0UZ
You down with TPP? (Reuters/Toru Hanai)

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.

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