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Abe and the Yasukuni Shrine – Sino-Japan relations in post-Koizumi era

Updated On: Jul 25, 2006

East Asian states are watching nervously by the sidelines to see how Sino-Japanese relations will be shaping up in the post-Koizumi era.

They are especially interested to see how the recent interesting turn in Japanese politics will impact its foreign relations, particularly with China.

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, a Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight and one of four prospective candidates for the Post-Koizumi Prime Minister position in an LDP government, announced publicly that he would give up the race citing his age as a reason. While that is the publicly-released explanation, many speculate that the real reason is factional politics or pressure put on Fukuda by his political patrons to make way for the candidate favored by the party itself. Fukuda belongs to the same faction as Shinzo Abe, the leading candidate for LDP as the next Prime Minister of Japan and Fukuda’s participation in a race against Abe would split the unity of their political faction vis-à-vis other political factions within the party (such as those led by Foreign Minister Taro Aso).

This new development is likely to be watched cautiously by China who considers Abe a hawk as opposed to the more positively-viewed dovish Fukuda. In his book, entitled ‘To A Beautiful Country’, Abe describes his own brand of politics as 'open-minded conservatism'. Mr Abe calls in his book for revisions to Japan's pacifist Constitution and defends the controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

However, interestingly, another new twist in Japanese politics may force Abe to moderate his stance towards Yasukuni visits. According to a memo by the late Grand Steward of the Imperial Household, Tomohiko Tomita, which was made public on Thursday, the late Emperor Hirohito indicated that he stopped going to Yasukuni because the Grand Priest of the Shrine decided in 1978 to enshrine 14 Class A war criminals along with some 2.5 million war dead.

Now the momentum has suddenly increased for anti-Yasukuni forces in Japan. The publicly-released Emperor's views is likely to augment calls by many politicians for the construction of an alternative memorial for the war dead. Many also wonder if the memo can be used as a way out for Abe to discontinue the visits to the shrine without appearing weak in dealing with China and South Korea in the face of the Japanese public.

Already, the opposition parties have picked up on this. The secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Mr Yukio Hatoyama, said the late monarch's views should still be respected. 'It is significant that there is now proof that the late Emperor did not pray at Yasukuni over the Class A war criminals. It is therefore unpardonable for Mr Koizumi to visit the shrine just because he wants to,' he said.

Ex-LDP Vice President Taku Yamasaki said he has advocated a memorial for the war dead that the Emperor can visit. "I think (the reported memorandum) will definitely have an impact on the ongoing argument on whether to build a secular state memorial for the war dead," said Yamasaki, who heads an interparty group of more than 100 Diet members who want such a memorial.

Meanwhile, Beijing is doing all it can to diplomatically reach out to its neighbor in the post-Koizumi era to convince the Japanese public that China is not hostile to Japan. In the latest of a flurry of visits by Japanese political heavyweights (both opposition and ruling parties) to Beijing, China's Vice President Zeng Qinghong met with Makoto Koga, former secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. China indicated its strongest desires to patch up with Japan.

"We hope Japan will make joint efforts with China to overcome the political obstacles in our relations as soon as possible and push China-Japan relations back on the track of healthy, stable development." Describing China and Japan as "countries with significant influence in Asia and the world", Zeng said developing "long-term, stable good-neighborly friendly ties" serves the basic interests of the two countries and peoples, and helps promote peace, stability and the development of Asia and the world.

The memo, Beijing’s overtures and new pressure may have already yielded a concession from Abe who reportedly leaked to the Japanese press through a top aide that he will not visit the Shrine on August 15, the day of the Japanese surrender and Allied victory. Only time will tell if further concessions will be made after he becomes the leader of LDP and the Prime Minister in an LDP-led government.  

Sources:

Fukuda not to run in LDP presidential poll (Japan Times, 22 July 2006)

Abe backs greater military role (Straits Times, 22 July 2006)

A chance to resolve the Yasukuni issue (Straits Times, 22 July 2006)

'Hirohito memo' won't affect shrine visits: Koizumi (Japan Times, 21 July 2006)

Hirohito visits to Yasukuni stopped over war criminals (Japan Times, 21 July 2006)

Fukuda may not run for LDP presidency (Asahi, 20 July 2006)

Emperor Showa irked by war criminals at shrine (Asahi, 20 July 2006)

Japanese PM defends shrine visits (BBC, 20 July 2006)

China appeals for Japan's cooperation to overcome political obstacles (People’s Daily, 20 July 2006)