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Why Shinzo Abe stopped visiting Yasukuni temple

This year, the Prime Minister of Japan and the whole government refrained from pilgrimage to the odious sanctuary

Why Shinzo Abe stopped visiting Yasukuni temple
Photo: World of Japan - LiveJournal

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
On August 15, Tokyo hosted the annual ceremony to mark the end of World War II. In 1945, on this very day, the Emperor of Japan Hirohito read out on the radio a rescript about the surrender of the country. The ceremony was attended by the imperial couple and 6200 people, including relatives of those who died in the war. In total, there are 3,1 million people in Japan who have lost their lives on the battlefield.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a speech at the ceremony. In his speech, the prime minister vowed that Japan would never unleash war again. Abe stressed that he will humbly face history, while at the same time working towards a bright, hopeful future. While he did not address Japan's responsibility for the military atrocities committed against its Asian neighbors, the Japanese prime minister expressed an ardent desire to strengthen forward-looking relations with China and South Korea. It should be noted that this was Shinzo Abe's fifth speech during his re-tenure as prime minister since December 2012, but in his speeches he never once touched upon the responsibility of the Japanese state for its military actions.

In previous years, on August 15, cabinet ministers headed by the prime minister, parliamentarians, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, public figures and other notable persons routinely visited the Yasukuni Shrine. In this Shinto shrine, along with ordinary Japanese people who died in the war, the souls of Class A war criminals executed by the Tokyo Tribunal are worshiped. Visits to the military sanctuary by Japanese government ministers began in 1980 during the administration of then Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki. This year, the visits came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reformed the government on August 3, removing ministers from the government who held his own conservative ideology.

In neighboring countries, Yasukuni Shrine is considered a symbol of Japanese militarism and is a source of diplomatic friction between Japan and them, since along with the Japanese killed in the war, executed war criminals, including General Hideki Tojo, who was Japanese Prime Minister during the war, are worshiped there.

After Abe returned to power in 2012, a number of his ministers regularly visited the temple, and he himself visited it in December 2013. However, the prime minister's visit caused strong opposition from the international community, primarily from Beijing and Seoul. Then even the administration of US President Barack Obama issued a condemning statement, making it clear that she was "disappointed" by the act of the head of the Japanese state. And this despite the close military and political ties between the United States and Japan. Since then, the Japanese leader has never visited the temple to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II for five consecutive years. 

However, this year, as before, Abe made a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine out of his own pocket as chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. At the same time, according to Japanese newspapers, he told his special adviser Masahiko Shibuyama, who was sent on his behalf to the temple, that he regretted that he could not personally go there.

In August this year, not only Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but also members of his government in full force refrained from visiting the odious temple on the occasion of the 72nd anniversary of Japan's surrender to the war. Japanese media outlets point out that this year, for the first time since 2011, when Naoto Kan, leader of the then opposition Democratic Party, was prime minister, all cabinet ministers, without exception, decided not to attend the temple. Even Interior Minister Seiko Noda and Health Minister Katsunobu Kato, who had previously visited the temple as acting ministers, did not go.

At the same time, two groups of Japanese lawmakers honored with their visit to Yasukuni. One group consisted of young conservative members of the LDP. It was led by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who had just been dismissed. Another group included representatives from different parties, led by Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Masahisa Sato. On August 15, 63 Japanese parliamentarians visited Yasukuni.

The main reason for the disregard of the Yasukuni Shrine by prominent members of the Japanese establishment this year was the growing tension on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear missile potential of the DPRK is today considered in Tokyo the most serious threat to the country's security. To neutralize it, Japan wants to work more closely with the United States and South Korea. In order to achieve an end to Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests, the three countries are now exerting strong military and economic pressure on North Korea.

At the same time, the Japanese capital believes that the North Korean nuclear-missile puzzle cannot be solved without China, which is the main supplier of oil to the North of the Korean Peninsula and has significant economic influence in the DPRK. In addition, Abe is committed to improving bilateral relations with China as this year marks the 45th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Finally, the Japanese prime minister intends to hold a trilateral summit in Tokyo with the leaders of China and South Korea later this year. This will be the first such meeting since November 2015.

Due to these circumstances, Tokyo decided not to annoy Beijing and Seoul once again. It is noteworthy that Abe's decision not to attend the temple came at a time when tensions between the United States and North Korea are growing in connection with the threat of Pyongyang to launch ballistic missiles towards the American island of Guam through Japan. However, Japanese commentators fear that by yielding too much to neighboring countries regarding Yasukuni Shrine, Abe risks undermining his conservative support base in the country and hitting his already dwindling rating.

In addition, the influential Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun notes in its commentary that for the third time in a row, Abe uses similar expressions at the August end of the war to emphasize his determination to renounce war. But at the same time, for the fifth year in a row, he did not mention Japan's responsibility for its aggression in Asia. Since former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa first used the word “condolence” in 1993, subsequent prime ministers have always referred to Japanese aggression in Asia by using the phrase “deep remorse” or expressing “condolences” to Asian countries.

At the same time, attention is drawn to the fact that at this year's ceremony, after the announcement at noon of a minute of silence in memory of those killed in the war, Emperor Akihito (Hirohito's son) expressed "deep remorse" in his speech, as he did at similar ceremonies within the previous two years. The Emperor, in particular, said: "I sincerely hope that the horrors of war will never be repeated." His statement, as in the two previous ceremonies, is discordant with Abe's phraseology at these ceremonies.

The right-wing conservative newspaper Sankey Shimbun, for its part, criticizes Abe for refusing to personally visit the Yasukuni temple. According to the newspaper, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an offering to the temple as chairman of the LDP, but it is regrettable that he himself did not make pilgrimages. On this day in the temple, the publication laments, not a single minister visited, which is very sad.

The Sankei Shimbun indicates that in previous years, the Prime Minister always made a pilgrimage at the head of a delegation of government members. However, China began to interfere with the ritual with its protests after then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made an official visit to Yasukuni in August 1985. Long-term Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also attended the temple every year from 2001 to 2006. He did this demonstratively, despite strong protests from Beijing. Koizumi's actions led to anti-Japanese pogroms in China in 2005 and brought Sino-Japanese relations to an extremely low point.

Judging by everything, it is unlikely that the August Yusukuni obstruction by the Japanese government will become a permanent phenomenon, and visits by Japanese officials and politicians of the military temple will remain a "thorn" for Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors, primarily with China and South Korea.
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