Learn from Mistakes: Abe’s Visit to Yasukuni Shrine

Learn from Mistakes: Abe’s Visit to Yasukuni Shrine

Abe YasukuniIn a blog post for the Rising Power Initiative, RPI Graduate Research Assistant Daisuke Minami offers a view on Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the controversial war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. Painting the visit as a political mistake, Minami argues that the mistake presents important lessons for China, South Korea, and Japan to build mutual understanding and restraint on historical issues in order to seek reconciliation and common interests.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unexpected visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead and fourteen “Class A” war criminals, has stirred a great deal of controversy surrounding his views of history while exacerbating already intensified tensions in Northeast Asia. Despite these consequences, this diplomatic debacle still teaches us important lessons on why we need mutual understanding and restraint on historical issues to pursue historical reconciliation, a future-minded posture, and common interests in the region.

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni was a political failure both domestically and internationally even though he later provided an explanation for the act—honoring the war dead and praying for world peace—and sought understanding from world leaders and his constituents.

Internationally, the visit generated a chorus of condemnation not only from China and South Korea—leaving Sino-Japan and Korea-Japan relations at the lowest point in recent history—but also from Japan’s most important ally, the United States, who expressed its “disappointment” on the issue. The timing of the visit could have not been worse, as Japan had been struggling to mend relations with its neighbors while attempting to gain their support for its new active security policy. Moreover, the visit is a windfall for Chinese leaders who like to use the alleged resurgence of Japan’s militarism as a justification for their military assertiveness over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. It also validates Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has been using a similar “history card” against Japan to distract from her own domestic problems and maintain her popularity.

It is also questionable if the visit earned Abe any political points domestically. A recent poll showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents say the prime minister should consider the diplomatic implications of his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, expressing concerns about the provocative move. To say the least, the public is divided on the matter, as 47.1 percent said it “was not good” to visit the shrine, compared with 43.2 percent who disagreed. While some may argue that the visit consolidated Abe’s right-wing base, placing a risky bet on this controversial issue does not seem to be a wise political decision. More importantly, the public’s major expectation for Abe is not his historical revisionism restoring Japan’s nationalism but rather, his Abenomics rejuvenating the country’s economy. He should not misread the political landscape.

Despite these consequences, Abe’s political misstep presents important lessons for players in Northeast Asia. For Japan, the lesson is an inconvenient truth: history issues are a losing battle. That is, Japanese leaders cannot win arguments or gain international support by revisiting the country’s dark past and evoking historical revisionism. Honoring those who sacrificed their lives for their country is indeed a moral duty for the state leaders. This act, at least in principle, is a domestic issue and should not be subject to international scrutiny. Yet, this does not change the fact that Japan’s past aggression inflicted unbearable suffering on its neighbors, and that a visit to Yasukuni Shrine can evoke such sensitive memories. Japanese leaders must recognize such historical sensitivities if they truly want to improve relations with neighboring countries and gain international support for Japan’s new active security role in the region.

Blaming Abe, however, does not mean that there is no lesson for China and South Korea in dealing with Japan. Chinese and Korean leaders accusing Japanese counterparts of historical revisionism and militarism only exacerbates the bilateral relationships, creating anti-China and anti-Korea sentiments and encouraging a nationalist surge in Japan. As a first step, China and South Korea need to recognize the records of Japan’s postwar pacifism that contributed to regional order and prosperity through its military minimalism, economic development, and development aid. They should also refrain from politicizing and exploiting Japan’s controversial past for their own political gains in order to reassure the Japanese that their apology will be well-received and accepted. This should not be a mission impossible, given the fact that the Yasukuni Shrine only became a political issue several years after the enshrinement of the war criminals became public in 1979, and that three prime ministers visited the shrine a total of 21 times without protests during those years.

The tragedy of all this is that history issues bar China, South Korea, and Japan from seeking their numerous mutual interests, from cultural exchange to trade to regional security. Security is perhaps the most pressing matter, as uncertainty looms over the Korean Peninsula after the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle and tensions keep rising over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Pursuing these common interests requires historical reconciliation and a future-minded posture, and that is only possible if all parties establish mutual understanding on the sensitivities surrounding history issues and exercise mutual restraint on evoking those issues. There is no winner in fighting over the past. Let us focus on the future and move forward.


The author is a Graduate Research Assistant for the Rising Powers Initiative. He is also a Ph.D. student in the Political Science Department, The George Washington University.