February 03, 2014 00:00
By Kavi Chongkittavorn
A stroll inside the controversial Yasukuni Jinja (Shrine) provides a window to understand the psyche of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At the huge shrine compound, there is a wooden board with messages from those who died in various battles under the Japanese
The message for January was from Kozo Yoshino, private first class, who died from illness contracted at the frontline in Semenovka, Siberia on January 30, 1946. It reminded the shrine’s visitors of Japan’s past wars and the record of the imperial army that went back to the Boshin War in 1868 and continued to the end of World War II.
For those who want to see the documents and artefacts linked to these battles, they have to visit the Yushukan — the war museum. It is not open for the time being. The shrine commemorates the estimated 2.5 million war dead. Among them are some key war criminals condemned to death in 1948.
Abe’s visit to Yasukuni has created uproar both in China and South Korea — two countries that suffered much from Japan’s past aggression. The December 26 trip also upset US-Japan relations because Abe was determined to go there even though Vice President Joseph Biden tried hard to change his mind. It was revealed last week by the Kyodo News Agency that Biden spent nearly an hour on the phone with Abe trying to dissuade him from the shrine’s visit. But Biden failed. Unlike the previous visits by other Japanese leaders, Abe’s maverick act and hardline approach has caused great anxiety among Asean friends.
A survey by the Asahi Shimbun last week showed that 46 per cent of Japanese thought that he should not go there, while 40 per cent said it was not a big deal. What mattered most for Abe was quite simple — 56 per cent of those who voted for the Abe administration supported the visit, while for 35 per cent it was a no-no.
For Japan’s domestic consumption, Abe’s visit has given him a much-needed boost as he continues to struggle to beef up the country’s economic growth. He has added a new arrow — the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stimulus — to the three-arrows package of fiscal incentives, monetary loosening and structural reforms.
However, the mood is unsettling within the region. The further deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea could have far-reaching economic repercussions for economic integration in Asean and East Asia.
When the Asean foreign ministers met for the first time under Myanmar’s chair in Bagan last month, they expressed concern that the territorial disputes, especially over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, had developed into a strategic rivalry.
This trend is not going away soon and Asean has to be prepared to cope with the possible fallout due to its growing economic interdependence with both China and Japan. They also worried about the worsening of Japan-South Korea relations. The three Asian economic giants are major dialogue partners in the so-called Asean+3 process.
After Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Asean-based Japanese diplomats have been explaining its rationale, stressing that he wanted to pray for the souls of those who died in the wars. The central message was that he has never meant to hurt the feelings of people in countries that suffered under Japanese wartime aggression.
Asean hoped that these acrimonious ties would be improved as soon as possible as Asean prepares for the Asean Community in 2015. Otherwise, the Asean+3 process would be hampered, particularly the ongoing negotiations on the region-wide free trade arrangement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP).
Fortunately for now, the RCEP third-round meeting concluded recently in Kuala Lumpur and went smoothly. Japan wanted to go beyond the service and investment sectors into competition and intellectual property rights, while South Korea pushed for a dispute-settlement mechanism.
China, acting as a facilitator of dialogue partners, has done a good job and was open to a procurement agreement under the RCEP. The US-led Trans Pacific Partnership has also made much progress, with the hope of an earlier pact by the end of this year.
In addition, Abe’s strong character and advocacy have become problematic. A senior Japanese diplomat working for Japan’s mission to Asean based in Jakarta was recalled to Tokyo recently because he failed to push through the original draft of the Japan-Asean joint statement commemorating the 40th anniversary of their relations. Japan wanted Asean to show solidarity over its condemnation of China’s new air security declaration, known as the Air Defence Identification Zone. But Asean only agreed on a general statement without naming names.