October 15, 2014 | Commentary on Japan, Asia and the Pacific, US-Japan Relations

Abe's Yasukuni Visit Imperils Allied Security Interests

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Yasukuni Shrine is a serious foreign policy mistake that threatens allied security interests in Asia. Although Abe expressed "severe remorse" for Japan's historic actions, he should have realized that the visit was needlessly provocative and would exacerbate already strained relations with the United States and South Korea.

Abe's pilgrimage to Yasukuni will eradicate his previous efforts to improve relations with Seoul as well as reverse the growing sense in Washington that South Korea, not Japan, is more to blame for the stalemate between America's critical Asian allies.

The prime minister has unnecessarily jeopardized allied security plans to enhance regional stability by having Japan assume greater responsibilities to address the escalating North Korean and Chinese security threats. Abe's earlier revisionist historic comments had diverted attention from these real security risks by enabling the misperception of "resurgent Japanese militarism."

Tokyo's pragmatic policy to augment its defense forces, exercise collective self-defense, and improve its contribution to international peace-keeping operations is driven primarily by increasingly belligerent Chinese actions, not Japanese nationalism. It is Beijing, not Tokyo, that seeks to extend territorial claims through military intimidation in both the East and South China Seas.

That said, Tokyo must more fully redress continued emotional fallout from its colonial occupation and wartime actions. Prime Minister Abe should work with Japan's neighbors, particularly South Korea, to establish an apology process with the potential for resolving divisive historic issues. This process should include, at a minimum, an official unequivocal affirmation of the Kono and Murayama statements of contrition, and a mutually acceptable mechanism for compensating surviving comfort women.

For its part, South Korea should not overreact to the Yasukuni visit by limiting its response to a single condemnatory statement. Instead, Seoul immediately cancelled planned vice-ministerial talks and all future military cooperation with Japan.

Seoul should exercise pragmatic leadership by not allowing nationalism to impede security policies that serve its national interests. President Park Geun Hye should no longer prioritize historic issues over addressing common security threats.

Unfortunately, historic animosity continues to trump rational policymaking, so much so that the South Korean public was outraged this week that its military unit under attack in Sudan accepted an emergency shipment of 10,000 bullets from its Japanese counterparts.

To enable reconciliation, South Korea should articulate a framework for resolving contentious historic and sovereignty issues between Seoul and Tokyo, including defining the parameters of a Japanese apology that would enable Seoul to move forward on improving bilateral relations.

Now is the time for Japan to finally and fully put the past to rest. And President Park should be as willing to have a trust-building policy toward Japan as she is with North Korea.

 - Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in Kyodo News