The recent visit of a Japanese Cabinet minister to a controversial war shrine was tantamount to rubbing salt into the wound reopened by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's earlier pilgrimage to Yasukuni Jinja.
Like his Liberal Democratic Party predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, who visited the shrine six times while in office, Abe might frame this as a patriotic duty to honour Japan’s war dead.
But about half his countrymen deem the visit “not good” and an overwhelming seven in 10 feel the government should pay heed to the diplomatic outrage stirred.
So, what moves Abe and his ilk? A dyed-in-the-wool conservative, Abe comes from a right-wing political family – his father was a former foreign minister and his grandfather, a former prime minister, was dogged by suspicions of being a World War II war criminal.
All the more, he needs to avoid the impression that his overriding aim is to restore Japan’s past glory and help turn it into a full-fledged military power via incremental security reforms.
Abe knows full well the strength of adverse international opinion against periodic visits by Japanese prime ministers, over the last 38 years, to what is seen as a monument to Japan’s wartime militarism.
Yet, he persisted with his own visit during a particularly tetchy patch in Tokyo’s relations with Beijing. Was Abe deliberately sending a message of hawkish intent and abandoning all hope of even a tentative rapprochement with China?
His neighbours can hardly be blamed for thinking so, as Yasukuni is nothing like America’s Arlington National Cemetery which Abe had inappropriately drawn comparison with.
Yasukuni had served in the past as a state tool to whip up war fever and wide acceptance of great sacrifices (symbolised by the Kaiten, the suicide submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy, exhibited there).
The shrine rankles China and others because it projects an unrepentant response to brutal wartime aggression like the Nanjing Massacre which is referred to merely as an “incident”.
As thoughtless as such shrine displays are the visits by Japanese prime ministers that demonstrate a blind disregard for the pain of nations that suffered during Japan’s wars in the 1930s and 1940s.
As long as Yasukuni remains an open wound, the more it will offer an assertive China the moral standing to pursue its own nationalistic line. This doesn’t bode well for the region that needs a strategic balance of power to be maintained with a cool head by the United States, as a security alliance partner, and Japan, as a major economic player.
Hawks like Abe are likely to be hoisted with their own petard if they persist with jingoistic policies that rile others in the region.