Analysis: Abe draws ire even as he avoids war shrine on WWII anniversary

The prime minister marked Japan's surrender by attending an event at a sports stadium. But other politicians did go to Yasukuni, sparking sharp commentary from China and South Korea.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows before the main altar decorated with huge bank of chrysanthemums as he offers prayers for the war dead during a memorial ceremony at the Budokan in Tokyo today.

Japan’s atrocities in Asia from 1933 to 1945 as it unleashed modern warfare and a racist colonial aggression were horrific and well documented. The Japanese killed a lot of people during World War II in the name of being superior to them.

Sixty-nine years ago today, Japan surrendered, and since then has consistently, if obliquely, apologized. But to hear some of the local East Asian media berate Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and to listen to some of the vox pop in Beijing, it sounds like Tokyo just ended its militaristic campaigns 69 seconds ago.

To mark the anniversary, Mr. Abe sent a mid-level functionary as well as a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where the “souls” of 14 Japanese war criminals – as well as many other soldiers, most of whom died during World War II – are symbolically interred. More than 80 Japanese politicians also went to the shrine.

Official visits there outrage both China and South Korea, both of which suffered deeply at Japan's hands. But Abe, who did go to Yasukuni in December, stayed away today, commemorating the surrender instead at a sports stadium in Tokyo along with the emperor and empress.

The move offers evidence of an interest in tip-toeing, rather than saber-rattling, in his relations with his northeast Asian neighbors. Abe wants talks, not sparring, with China’s President Xi Jinping, and hopes to achieve that goal in November at the planned APEC meeting.

It is true that a bizarre strain of World War II denial has been increasing from some of Tokyo's bywaters, and Japan continues to baffle many observers by questioning the exact status of Korean comfort women or its history and intent in the 1930s.

But the average Japanese is much more worried about the rise of China than vice-versa, as China declares restricted flight zones and moves oil rigs around in the Pacific and the South China Sea. The average Japanese diplomat can full well read what the ever-more-blustering press in China is saying.

Indeed, nothing is playing better in Beijing right now than anti-Japanese patriotic emotionalism. Here’s the nationalistic Global Times:

"The biggest force that can transform Sino-Japanese relations is the rise of China. It probably won't make Japan and China regain rapport, but it will drive Japan to assess the outcome of a full confrontation with China.”

The Beijing Youth Daily said, in regard to the visit of a number of Japanese politicians to Yasukuni:  "The intention of evoking the dead soul of militarism is very clear….”

Is modern Japan, with its high standard of living and worry about sinking into island-nation isolation, in any way comparable to the Japan of the Meiji Restoration, with its zealous patriotic fervor and infamous attack on Pearl Harbor? Not even remotely.

The Americans would prefer if Abe did not get anywhere near Yasukuni. But no one is discussing Japanese nationalism as the causative reason tensions are swirling in Asia.

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