Japan’s PM Abe Faces Quandary Over Visiting Controversial Shrine That Honors War Criminals

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his party's headquarters in Tokyo on July 21, 2013

Will he or won’t he? As Aug. 15, the 68th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, approaches, it’s time to take bets on whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. The Shinto place of worship is where the country’s war dead are memorialized, including some convicted war criminals who orchestrated Japan’s brutal occupation of neighboring Asian nations. The conventional wisdom in Tokyo is that Abe, despite his nationalist campaign rhetoric before he came to power in December, won’t make a pilgrimage to the controversial shrine this week. After all, during Abe’s first stint as Prime Minister in 2006–07, he stayed away from Yasukuni. Nevertheless, as assertive foreign policies are gaining sway regionally, observers in neighboring nations are on guard. Abe himself has stayed mum on his Aug. 15 schedule.

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Even if the Prime Minister does avoid the Yasukuni compound, where a museum exhibit underplays the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during World War II, it’s likely that hawkish members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will travel the shaded path to the Shinto shrine. In Hiroshima on Aug. 6, Abe said Cabinet ministers were “free” to make personal visits to the shrine should they wish. One conservative parliamentarian with the minority Japan Restoration Party says Yasukuni is simply a place where those who perished in war are commemorated, nothing more. “I lived in Washington before and went to Arlington National Cemetery,” says Nariaki Nakayama, who believes the Nanjing Massacre — in which Japanese soldiers rampaged across the former Chinese capital in an orgy of bloodshed — never happened. “Arlington is just like Yasukuni.” But others aren’t convinced by such a comparison. “Many [Japanese] politicians are considering visiting the shrine to score political points,” said an Aug. 12 opinion piece in the Global Times, a Chinese daily linked to the ruling Communist Party. “However, they are in fact playing with fire and harming their nation. Yasukuni visits risk further antagonizing countries including China, South Korea and poisoning the sentiments among the public of these countries.”

Tensions have been rising in East Asia, with governments engaged in territorial rows and trading criticism over rising national-defense budgets. Anxiety has centered over a set of uninhabited islands that the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese the Diaoyu. Currently the islands in the East China Sea are administered by Japan but China and political rival Taiwan also claim the tiny landmasses, which are scattered in waters rich with natural resources. Later this month, members of Ganbare Nippon, a nationalist Japanese outfit whose name translates roughly to Go for It Japan, plan to sail to the disputed isles. A group of Hong Kong patriots initially said it intended to do the same but canceled because of concerns of the seaworthiness of its vessels. Any action by ostensibly civilian groups will surely heighten unease in an area where cat-and-mouse games between Chinese and Japanese forces have increased dramatically in recent months. Last week, Chinese coast-guard vessels stayed in waters around the disputed islands for more than 28 hours, the longest such stretch since the territorial dispute was rekindled, prompting the Japanese to lodge a formal protest with Beijing. The same week, Japan had unveiled its largest warship since World War II, leading some Chinese analysts to voice concern about Tokyo’s potential military ambitions.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told TIME on Aug. 7 that he would be staying away from Yasukuni. “I have never been there,” he said, “so I won’t suddenly be deciding to go there.” Addressing international concern over Japan’s first defense-budget hike in 11 years — a 0.8% increase compared with double-digit rises in China over recent years — Onodera also reiterated Tokyo’s culpability for its wartime record. “Japan should humbly accept the historical fact that Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to various Asian nations in the previous war,” he added. In June, the Defense Minister had repeated a similar sentiment while in Singapore, something he says was, in turn, an echo of Abe’s earlier words to the Japanese Diet.

Yet while on the campaign trail last fall, Abe hinted that he might support a revision of the Murayama and Kono statements, two apologies by previous Japanese politicians for Japan’s wartime behavior and for its systematic use of sexual slaves from occupied lands. After shunning Yasukuni during his first stint as Prime Minister, Abe later said he regretted that decision. Even if the Prime Minister does avoid the shrine on Aug. 15, speculation is now mounting over whether Abe might visit Yasukuni during an autumn festival. With the LDP’s coalition having prevailed in upper-house elections last month, giving Abe a rare mandate in a country plagued by revolving-door politics, the question remains: Which Abe will prevail, the outspoken nationalist or the pragmatic politician?

— With reporting by Chie Kobayashi / Tokyo

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