He could only stay away for so long. On Dec. 26, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime criminals are honored. It was exactly a year after the conservative Prime Minister had taken office. Although the hawkish Abe had until today avoided visiting the religious site while Prime Minister, he had said that one of his regrets during his first stint as Japan’s leader (Sept. 2006 to Sept. ’07) was not personally paying his respects at Yasukuni. His arrival at the Shinto shrine, complete with a solemn morning suit, was broadcast live on Japanese TV.
Yasukuni honors the nation’s 2.5 million wartime dead, including those convicted of committing atrocities during imperial Japan’s march across Asia in the past century. A history museum located on the shrine’s leafy grounds downplays Japan’s brutal World War II record, labeling the Nanking Massacre, in which Japanese soldiers engaged in a weeks’-long slaughter in the former Chinese capital, a mere “incident,” among other revisionist claims.
Since coming to power for the second time a year ago, Abe has proved a muscular and decisive leader — a contrast to his less effectual first term. He has launched a fiscal-reform package dubbed Abenomics and has beefed up the country’s military profile, warning that Japan must contend with a rising and more assertive China.
(MORE: Japan’s PM Abe Faces Quandary Over Visiting Controversial Shrine That Honors War Criminals)
Earlier this month, Abe signed off on the largest defense-budget hike in nearly two decades, albeit a mere 2.2% increase in spending year on year. Some of the money will be used to bolster Japan’s defense of contentious islets in the East China Sea that Tokyo administers but to which Beijing also lays claim. Last month, the Chinese government announced the formation of an East China Sea Air-Defense-Identification Zone that encompassed those bits of rock, as well as other territory claimed by South Korea.
Despite being a member of Japan’s largely pacifist postwar generation, Abe has called for Japan to transform its military into a more conventional force. Under the current Japanese constitution, which was written by the victorious Americans after World War II, the Japanese armed forces are prohibited from any offensive military action.
Abe’s own grandfather, a wartime Minister of Industry, was once arrested as a suspected war criminal by Allied occupation forces. But the charges never stuck and he went on to serve as a postwar Prime Minister. In a memoir called Toward a Beautiful Country, Abe described his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi as a “sincere statesman who only thought about the future of his country.” While Prime Minister in the late 1950s, Kishi, like many other Japanese leaders after him, visited Yasukuni too.
That didn’t spark much international outcry then. But the shrine now occupies a far more sensitive place in regional geopolitics. No sitting Japanese Prime Minister has visited Yasukuni since 2006. East Asian nations, particularly China, are sure to decry Abe’s pilgrimage. Hopes for an easing of regional tensions with the dawn of a new year just faded.