Abe Hedges on Visit to War-Dead Shrine Amid Regional Tension

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his senior Cabinet officials are set to avoid marking tomorrow’s anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II with visits to a shrine seen in Asia as a symbol of the country’s aggression.

The prime minister will forgo a visit to the Yasukuni shrine and make a cash offering instead, NHK Television reported today, without citing anyone. A press officer at the prime minister’s office declined to comment, while a spokesman for Yasukuni said he had no knowledge of a donation.

A Yasukuni visit could imperil efforts to repair relations with China and South Korea strained by territorial disputes and Abe’s talk of overhauling the country’s pacifist constitution. The two countries see the shrine as a symbol of military atrocities during Japan’s occupation of much of Asia in the first half of the 20th century.

“The Japanese and Chinese are trying to set the stage for a summit and I don’t think they want to derail it with useless gestures,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “So I think we’re continuing to see the pragmatic Abe prevail over the ideological Abe.”

China’s ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, met with former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in Tokyo, Xinhua News Agency said today, without giving further details.

Nationalist Supporters

Abe, who also wants to avoid alienating nationalist supporters of his Liberal Democratic Party, has refused to say whether he will visit the Tokyo shrine on the 68th anniversary of the end of the war. The site commemorates Japan’s war dead, including World War II leaders convicted of war crimes.

“Yasukuni enshrines war criminals and justifies invasions, and it is unacceptable for senior Japanese politicians to pay homage to it,” Cho Tai Young, spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said at a press briefing in Seoul yesterday. “Our government and our people can never accept it.”

None of Abe’s top officials has said they will make a visit, with Economy Minister Akira Amari publicly saying he would stay away. Finance Minister Taro Aso paid his respects at the shrine earlier in the year, sparking the cancellation of a planned visit to Japan by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se.

Aso drew criticism from South Korea again after saying last month that the government should learn from the example of the Nazis in revising the constitution. He later backtracked from the remarks.

Defense Buildup

Abe has emphasized the need to improve national security since taking office. He oversaw the first increase in the defense budget in 11 years and on Aug. 6 Japan unveiled its largest warship since World War Two. The Izumo helicopter carrier was “provocatively named” after a World War II ship involved in the invasion of China, the China Daily newspaper said.

Two days later, Japan summoned a Chinese diplomat to complain about China Coast Guard ships that stayed in Japanese-controlled waters around disputed East China Sea islands for more than 24 hours, a record since Japan bought three of the islands from their private owner in September.

Abe, who won a landslide victory in December on an economic revival platform, sent an offering to Yasukuni to commemorate the site’s spring festival in April but didn’t visit at the time. More than 160 members of parliament, many from the LDP, did visit in the largest gathering of politicians to attend since records of such trips were first kept in 1989. Another group of lawmakers plans to visit tomorrow.

Pacifist Constitution

Yasukuni remains popular among many of Abe’s nationalist supporters, who challenge the historic view of Japan as the aggressor in World War II and back revising the country’s pacifist constitution that was drafted by the U.S. after the war.

Abe has touted a plan to first change Article 96 of the constitution to ease conditions for revising the document, which currently stipulates that a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament is needed to make a change. Abe lacks that majority in the upper chamber and his Buddhist-backed coalition partner New Komeito is reluctant to back drastic changes.

The current constitution bans Japan from having armed forces and a new version endorsed by Abe’s ruling LDP would legitimize the existence of what the country terms its “self-defense forces.”

The plan to prioritize Article 96 wasn’t included in the LDP’s platform for the upper house election in July.

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