The Yasukuni Shrine Won't Go Away

As the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender during World War II approached, the question on every body's lips was this: Will he or won't he? Will he or won't he personally visit the Yasukuni shrine in downtown Tokyo?

As it happened, Abe visited other venues on August 15, eschewing a visit to the controversial war memorial, but the prime minister may have undermined the effect by trying too hard to simultaneously appease China and South Korea while pleasing his conservative constituency.

While the premier stayed away, two of his cabinet members showed up at the shrine. Abe himself sent an aide to the shrine with a personal offering. It was also widely noted that he refrained from voicing the customary regrets for the war and pledge to pursue peace.

As for mollifying the two important neighboring countries, Abe might as well have gone in person. The visits by the cabinet members triggered a formal protest in Beijing. South Korean President Park Guen Hye did not directly mention the Yasukuni visits, but urged Japan's leaders to learn the lessons from history.

Even the United States, which in the past has more or less ignored previous Yasukuni visits, issued some quiet warnings that conveyed its hopes that Abe wouldn't escalate tensions in the region. Washington frets over deteriorating relations between the three Northeast Asian countries, all of whom it considers allies or friends.

One cabinet member tried to lessen the impact by signing the guest book as shijin, or private citizen implying he was not there in an official capacity. The state minister for North Korean abduction issues signed with his official title. Abe tried to play things down by describing his donation as coming from the president of the ruling party, not the prime minister. It is not clear whether other countries care about such subtleties.

That last time the Yasukuni Shrine matter roiled relations with neighbors, was during the five-year administration of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who visited the shrine every August 15 as prime minister. Ironically it was his successor, Abe, who patched things up by declining to visit the controversial shrine during his first term as premier.

However, during the general election campaign in late 2012, he said that he very much regretted not visiting the shrine. That was taken as a pretty obvious signal that he would resume visits, and it is more than likely that he did intend to do just that and had to be persuaded either by his own advisors or by the Americans that this action now would be unwise.

Even without the shrine visits, relations with South Korea and China are increasingly strained over territorial disputes. It was one year ago that former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited the barely inhabited rocks claimed by Seoul as the Dokdo and Japan as the Takeshima. Chinese vessels and aircraft regularly enter Japanese controlled waters and airspace around the Senkaku.

Couple that with Abe's well-known right-wing sentiments, desire to increase spending on the military and amending the constitution to eliminate the war-renouncing Article 9. For the time being, the Abe government has shelved constitutional revision, but it is moving ahead with plans to permit Japan to engage in what's called "collective defense."

The Yasukuni Shrine was created by the Emperor Meiji to honor and permanently enshrine the spirits of approximately 2.5 million soldiers who died in his service - not for Japan, but for the Japanese Empire. (It includes spirits of Taiwanese and Koreans who fought for the empire during World War II and before.

In 1978 the priests enshrined the spirits of 14 former leaders of Japan known as "Class A" war criminals who had been convicted in the Tokyo Trials for the crime of waging an aggressive war,. Most of them either were hanged or given long prison sentences. That has been the nub of the argument ever since.

In a strange way, the American occupiers planted the seeds of the conflict. Determined to wipe out any vestige of State Shinto, which it believed behind emperor worship and Japanese aggression, it severed any official connection with the government. The American-written constitution forbids any state aid to religious institutions or festivals.

The shrine is thus run by a private foundation that can do what it wants and say what it wants without any permission from the government, no matter if that should cause the government embarrassment or complicate Japan's relations with other countries. Ever since the 1978 induction, the priests have insisted that the spirits of the 14, or anyone else, cannot be removed.

Moreover, the shrine operates the adjacent Yashukan Museum, which advances the most extreme right-wing revision theories about the war, asserting that the 14, and other convicted criminals are "martyrs", that Japan went to war with China to suppress bandits and "terrorists" and launched the wider war as a righteous crusade against Western colonialism.

As Jeffrey Kingston, director of East Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan, put it recently, "Yasukuni is not about dignified homage [to Japan's war dead] it is about scoring points and drawing attention to revisionist history."

Almost every year the question rises why not ignore the Yasukuni shrine and choose other venues to honor the fallen. Not far from Yasukuni is the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which, unlike Yasukuni actually has remains buried there, more than 300,000 of them. But all of them unidentified. Abe did lay a floral wreath at the site.

He also joined Emperor Akihito and the empress in bowing to a special memorial obelisk that is in the Nippon Budokan. Since 1978 that has been the imperial family's way of honoring the war dead. Since 1978 neither Akihito nor his father, Hirohito, has visited the Yasukuni.

In the first eight months of his administration, Abe has visited more than 15 countries, including virtually every Asian country. But there are two important neighbors he has not yet visited: China and South Korea.