Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Thursday, which houses the remains of Japan's war dead. Some 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined there, including General Tojo. Seven were executed for war crimes and another seven died while serving life sentences for related offenses.
Even Japanese media like the Asahi and Mainichi dailies have repeatedly referred to Yasukuni as symbolizing Japan's denial of responsibility for wartime atrocities. The fact that Abe bowed his head at such a shrine shows that forces in Japan that reject responsibility for their country's past misdeeds have lost all restraint.
Speaking to reporters, Abe said his aim was "to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war." He added, "I have no intention at all of hurting the feelings of the Chinese or the South Korean people" and voiced his hope of explaining his position directly to the leaders of the two countries. But Abe must have known how serious the repercussions would be, and felt confident that he can ignore them.
That confidence is born out of a sense that he can get away with anything so long as Japan remains a staunch ally of the U.S. amid Washington's new focus on Asia while China increasingly flexes its military muscle in the region. He must believe that Japan is now well on its way to abandoning its pacifist postwar constitution.
Diplomats from China, Japan and South Korea met in Seoul on Nov. 7 and agreed to continue efforts to bring about a trilateral summit. The recent execution of former North Korean eminence grise Jang Song-taek has increased the need for security cooperation between the three Asian countries. Now Abe has once again poured cold water on any efforts that have been made so far to improve frayed ties. More provocations from his administration lie no doubt ahead.
By visiting Yasukuni, Abe has made it clear that he does not intend to back down from a diplomatic and even military confrontation with South Korea and China over the issue of whitewashing his country's wartime atrocities, Tokyo's flimsy colonial claim to South Korea's Dokdo islets and other territorial issues. It is obvious that he will push ahead with his rightwing agenda at all costs.
That means that Japan's neighbors must find more effective ways of steering Japan back on the right track. That will be tough given the strong alliance between the U.S. and Japan to keep China in check, and Seoul has no assurance that its diplomatic clout is strong enough to do that. The time has come for the government to come up with completely new approaches to deal with the island country's lurch to the far right.