December 27, 2013 7:00 am JST

Shrine visit kicks up a needless fuss

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must have had a strong desire to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, but he needs to realize that the move has done the country no good because it has created so much friction at home and abroad.

   "I paid my respects to the souls of those who sacrificed their precious lives," Abe said after visiting the shrine Thursday. It is natural for a Japanese person to mourn the death of the many who were drafted and sent into battle. The question is whether Yasukuni is the appropriate venue.

   Among those honored at Yasukuni are 14 wartime leaders convicted as class-A war criminals by the postwar international tribunal in Tokyo. The leaders were enshrined there in 1978 through a decision by the shrine's chief priest at the time.

   The Japanese government's position is that it accepted the verdicts of the Tokyo tribunal by signing the San Francisco peace treaty, which officially ended World War II. That any act deifying war criminals is undesirable goes without saying.

   It is true that some question the legitimacy of the Tokyo tribunal. But even if the issue of war criminals is set aside, we cannot approve of the reckless decisions by then-Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and other government and military leaders who drove the nation into war.

   Right now, economic recovery is the top priority for Japan. One has to wonder what Abe thinks the country will gain by causing political turmoil that splits national opinion.
   The Yasukuni visit is also causing considerable harm to foreign relations. It has drawn fierce outcries from China and South Korea. Japan's ties with these nations were already frayed, with the leaders long unable to meet with each other. Some had said relations were so bad that a Yasukuni visit could not make them worse, or that Japan should use paying homage at Yasukuni as diplomatic leverage. But visiting highlights a lack of consideration for other countries and only worsens the chances of improving relations.

   The 21st century has been called the Asian century. By engaging in an act that angers Asian neighbors, Abe appears to be defeating his own stated goal of tapping Asia's growth, a component of Abenomics. Japanese business leaders have expressed their disappointment with the prime minister. 

   More worrisome is the impact on the Japan-U.S. alliance. The American Embassy in Tokyo took the unusual step of issuing a statement saying that "the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors." The Obama administration wants to prevent any action that could cause friction with China.

   When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came to Japan in October, they visited Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which houses the remains of unidentified soldiers who died in the war. Did Abe not understand the subtext of that act?

   Politics is the work of listening to a broad range of people and speaking for them. This should be obvious without citing philosopher Jeremy Bentham's principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. When a prime minister makes decisions, he must take the situation and his position into account.