The Christmas Day visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a controversial shrine made headlines around the world and it seems a certainty that future visits will cause major difficulties for Abe with his allies — notably, the United States.
"It is troubling and it has caused problems — and it will cause more problems — for Abe and the United States," Henry Nau, professor of international relations at George Washington University, said of Abe's visit to the Yasukuni war shrine that honors Japan's 2.5 million killed in military campaigns since the 19th Century.
But because the shrine also honors the spirits of 14 World War II figures considered Class-A war criminals, the visit of Abe or any prime minister is sure to generate controversy.
As Nau told Newsmax, "Just think of it as a Pacific version of the Bitberg Cemetery in Germany, which includes SS dead from World War II, and recall the furor when President Reagan and [West German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl visited there in 1985."
Nau, a former National Security Council staffer under Reagan, and other Japan experts in the U.S. strongly believe future visits to Yasukuni by Abe will make relations between Tokyo and Washington more tense, and cooperation between the two powers on crucial issues more difficult.
In a terse and unusually strongly-worded statement shortly after Abe's visit last week, a spokesman for U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy told reporters: "The United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions" in the Pacific.
One sign that Abe was well aware the U.S. would not be pleased with his Yasukuni visit was that he made it only after details were finalized for the relocation and streamlining of a U.S. Marine base on the island of Okinawa. The relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — eagerly sought by the Obama administration and agreed upon by Tokyo — was finally approved by local authorities in Okinawa after Obama promised them a package of infrastructure and developments to benefit the island.
Future dealings between Tokyo and Washington are unlikely to go so smoothly if Abe’s shrine visits continue. Abe has sent strong signals he plans to make future such visits. Upon taking office a year ago, Abe told reporters he “painfully regretted” staying away from Yasukuni during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-07.
In addition, the prime minister's highly controversial intention to eventually amend Japan's post-war constitution and permit a self-defense force is sure to draw closer scrutiny and perhaps opposition from the Obama administration.
As one prominent Japanese pundit who requested anonymity told Newsmax, "Abe must appear to be a ghost from Japan's imperial past in the 1930s to Americans and to our neighbors in the Pacific."
Both South Korea and China issued condemnations following Abe's visit to Yasukuni. One year after he commenced his term, the prime minister has yet to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye or Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The lack of any meeting between Park and Abe is particularly disappointing to those who felt the two new leaders in Seoul and Tokyo would have a special relationship that would finally heel old wounds between their countries.
Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister (1957-60) when Park's father Park Chung-Hee was coming to power as South Korea's president and the two had a good relationship. So did Abe's great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, who was Prime Minister of Japan (1964-72) while Park was South Korean president.
"Abe feels he has to make an appeal to a shadowy nationalist element that obviously has much influence but is reported little in the Japanese press," Nau explained to Newsmax, "If he were an American president, he would be called out on this and forced to explain. But the lack of a truly open press — not to mention investigative reporting — makes this out of the question."
In an interview with Foreign Affairs in August, Abe likened a possible visit to Yasukuni to U.S. presidents paying homage to war dead at Arlington National Cemetery. He quoted Professor Kevin Doak of Georgetown University that "visiting the cemetery does not mean endorsing slavery, even though Confederate soldiers are buried there."
"He is trying to justify visiting Yasukuni by equating actions Japan took against other countries before and during World War II to the U.S. Civil War,” observed Nau.
Nau noted that, unlike Japan, Germany has long had an open dialogue and considerable remorse over its actions in World War II. He also pointed out that South Korea's President Park has voiced regret over some of the actions taken by her father when he ruled as a military strongman.
"But there has been nothing like this in Japan," Nau told Newsmax. "I often speak in private conversations with friends in the Japanese Diet [parliament] of the image in the 1980s of Chancellor Kohl and [French President] Francois Mitterand holding hands at a public ceremony to demonstrate the friendship of their two countries who were once enemies. I would like to see a similar ceremony with Abe and Park."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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