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Friday, Oct. 19, 2012
Visit to war shrine may not be indicative of Abe's diplomacy
Ex-prime minister touts his record of mending fences with China
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, recently re-elected head of the Liberal Democratic Party, stirred controversy again by visiting Yasukuni Shrine on Wednesday, raising concerns over already strained Sino-Japanese relations.
Were a Lower House election held now, the LDP would stand a good chance of winning back power from the Democratic Party of Japan, which means Abe could become the prime minister. Western media have been ringing alarm bells over the possible comeback of the hawkish politician, whom they say would deny Japan's war responsibility and could further worsen relations with China.
But Abe isn't a stereotypical rightwinger.
During his time as chief Cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and as prime minister himself from 2005 to 2007, Abe in fact drastically improved Sino-Japanese relations, betraying the speculation of most overseas media.
The care Abe took to avoid criticism from both Beijing and his right-leaning supporters can be seen in the way he paid homage at Yasukuni Shine back then. He assumed a very low profile during his visit and later was apparently the source who later leaked the visit to domestic media.
"I think Abe would pay a visit to Yasukuni Shrine should he become prime minister (again)," said Yoshiyuki Inoue, Abe's closest aide when he was prime minister.
"But he may visit Yasukuni in a way that won't provoke China. He just wants to go in a natural way, not disturbed by politics or consideration to China," Inoue told The Japan Times.
Over the years, Beijing has strongly demanded that three key Cabinet ministers — the prime minister, foreign minister and chief Cabinet secretary — not visit Yasukuni, which enshrines Japan's war dead, as well as Class-A war criminals tried after World War II, most notably wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.
While most prime ministers have avoided Yasukuni while in office, Koizumi made repeated visits and drew strong protests from both China and South Korea.
While serving as chief Cabinet secretary under Koizumi, Abe visited the shrine secretly in April 2006, but the fact was reported by the media four months later through an apparent leak by Abe himself. Officially, he neither confirmed nor denied the reports apparently to avoid provoking China.
At the time, Abe was regarded as the most popular candidate to lead the then ruling LDP and become prime minister.
Abe's weakest point was considered his hawkish stance against China, a key trade partner. The media and his rival candidates focused their criticism on that point, saying they feared a further deterioration of Japan's ties with the giant neighbor should Abe take the top office.
Abe appeared to be well aware of this, not visiting the Tokyo shrine in public while maintaining an ambiguous attitude toward the overall Yasukuni issue.
As soon as he succeeded Koizumi, Abe chose China as the destination of his first overseas diplomatic trip. He was welcomed there enthusiastically by top leaders who praised him for "melting the ice" between Beijing and Tokyo.
Usually, the United States is the first destination for prime ministers, so the choice of China was considered extraordinary. Despite his reputation and public apprehensions, Abe stuck to middle-of-the-road policies toward China and most other neighboring countries while in office.
"Remember six years ago? . . . It is I who dramatically changed the Japan-China relationship," Abe said during an interview with TBS TV on Sept. 26, right after he was re-elected LDP president.
During the recent LDP presidential campaign, held amid flareups in the territorial disputes with both China and South Korea, Abe pledged to be tough against the two countries.
Asked about the diplomatic stance he would take if he becomes prime minister again, Abe didn't directly discuss a "tough" policy against the two countries, stressing only that Japan first needs to strengthen the alliance with the U.S. to keep Beijing and Seoul in check.
Of course, the diplomatic situation isn't the same as it was six years ago and Abe may take a tougher stance, as indicated during the LDP leadership race.
After the LDP was thrown out of power by voters in 2009, many members started advocating more conservative, right-leaning diplomatic policies to differentiate the party from the DPJ.
Abe himself has said he now "regrets" not visiting Yasukuni while serving as prime minister six years ago.
During the LDP presidential campaign, Abe also indicated he might revise the statement released in 1993 by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitting the responsibility of the Japanese military and authorities for the forced recruitment of "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery for troops during the war.
After all, to maintain his popularity with the party base, the "hawkish" politician will need to keep showing he is "tough" on Japan's Asian rivals.
But at least for now, Abe is keeping his options open by retaining flexibility in his stance toward China and returning to ambiguity regarding Yasukuni.
After visiting the shrine Wednesday, he refused to say if he would go back should he become the next prime minister.
"Given the current Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations, I should not say whether I would visit or not, should I become prime minister," Abe told reporters.