Whether Abe plans shrine visit in spotlight

Updated: 2013-08-05 07:41

By Pu Zhendong (China Daily)

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Japanese media predict leader will likely skip Yasukuni trip on Aug 15

With the Aug 15 anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II looming, concerns are mounting once again over whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet members will visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a move that observers say would aggravate regional tensions.

Despite Abe's personal enthusiasm for visiting the shrine, as shown in many of his previous statements, Japan's media say that this time he is likely to skip the visit on Aug 15.

Meanwhile, Washington has expressed its concern at the prospect of an official visit by Abe, since this might "hurt US interests", according to a report issued on Friday.

The Yasukuni Shrine honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 top war criminals convicted by an international tribunal. China and the Republic of Korea view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's past militarism and have condemned previous visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders and lawmakers.

Liu Jiangyong, a Japanese studies expert at Tsinghua University, said that it is still too early to predict whether Abe will visit the shrine, because the prime minister, confronted by domestic and foreign opposition, may not even have an answer himself.

"However, Abe still has other ways to express his worship at the shrine, such as by encouraging other Cabinet members to do so and by entrusting offerings to other officials who are sent," Liu said.

Abe's decision to stay away from the shrine could be seen as part of his efforts to avoid further tensions with Beijing and Seoul, which were victims of Japan's wartime aggression, two Japanese government sources were quoted by AFP as saying.

Observers said that Abe's decision on whether to visit the shrine on the anniversary should not be considered a bargaining chip in terms of rejuvenating bilateral ties.

Gao Hong, a Japanese studies professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the current deadlock in China-Japan relations was mainly due to a series of mistakes that the Japanese governments made over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, an issue that should be kept separate from the shrine visit.

"Whether or not to visit the shrine means whether Abe and the Japanese politicians can correctly understand history, while the recovery of Sino-Japanese ties hinges on whether Abe will make substantial policy change over disputes in the East China Sea," Gao said.

In July, Abe said that he would not prevent Cabinet members from paying their respects at the shrine on Aug 15. "Each Cabinet member should decide at his or her own discretion," he said.

Tomomi Inada, Japanese State Minister for Administrative Reforms, on Thursday received approval from the prime minister's office after she voiced her intentions to visit the shrine, sources said. She is also the first member of the Abe Cabinet to decide to make the pilgrimage to the shrine on that day.

Abe, taking office for the second time in December, did not visit Yasukuni during his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. He later expressed his regrets at not having visited the shrine.

In May, Abe defended earlier leaders' visits to the shrine, saying, "it is quite natural for a Japanese leader to offer prayer for those who sacrificed their lives for their country".

On Friday, Washington expressed concerns over the consequences of Abe's potential visit, saying visits to the controversial shrine could increase tension in the region, Japan's Kyodo News Agency reported.

A US report titled "Japan-US Relations: Issues for Congress" was released by the Congressional Research Service, a think tank that provides policy and legal analysis to the US Congress.

Referring to sharp reactions from China and the Republic of Korea to previous visits to Yasukuni by influential politicians, the report said, "Comments and actions on controversial historical issues by Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have raised concern that Tokyo could upset regional relations in ways that hurt US interests."

"Abe's approach to issues like the so-called 'comfort women' - sex slaves from the World War II era, history textbooks, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japan's war dead will be closely monitored by Japan's neighbors as well as by the United States," it said.

Since July's election for the upper house of Japan's parliament, or Diet, which cemented the Liberal Democratic Party's reign, Abe has called on several occasions for the revival of frozen ties between Beijing and Tokyo, including a proposal for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Li Xiushi, a Japanese studies researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said a two-faced Abe is creating illusions in terms of mending relations with China.

"On one hand, he wants to strengthen the containment of China in the global arena. ... On the other hand, he wants to pretend to the international and domestic audience: 'See how good my attitude is. I'm willing to negotiate. Only China is the tough one.'" Li said in a Reuters report.

Contact the writer at puzhendong@chinadaily.com.cn