An opinion poll in Japan last week showed 62 percent of respondents welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors convicted war criminals among the country's war dead. That is more than twice the number of people who felt it was inappropriate. In another poll in June, 56 percent said the prime minister should visit the shrine in person, compared to just 31 percent who were against.
This contrasts alarmingly with a poll in 2006 which showed that 60 percent were against their leader visiting the shrine and only 20 percent in favor.
The poll also showed that 50 percent of Japanese think Abe did the right thing by breaking away from a 20-year tradition of prime ministers expressing remorse over their country's wartime aggression and pledging not to let it happen again when they mark the end of World War II on Aug. 15. Only 36 percent felt Abe made a mistake.
Many Japanese people have been saying that only a group of conservative politicians are to blame for their government's lurch to the far right. But the recent polls tell a different story, suggesting the contagion is spreading widely among the population.
Many factors are at play, but the root of the trend appears to be a growing sense of crisis among Japanese in the face of the rising economic might of China amid a long economic slump in Japan. These conditions are not going to change any time soon, so the lurch to the right is likely to continue. How far it will go is anyone’s guess. The consequences could be catastrophic.
In a meeting of the Chinese and U.S. defense ministers in Washington on Monday, China said it will not back down in territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. Japan is apparently moving to create a Marine Corps as a mobile invasion force to deal with China's threat.
The noisy clash between China and Japan is already agitating Japanese public sentiment, resulting in waning support for moderates. Seoul must keep a close eye not only on the Japanese political climate but also on changes in public sentiment there.