Japanese leader shows signs of his old self | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.04.2013
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Japanese leader shows signs of his old self

Before Shinzo Abe was re-elected prime minister, there were rumblings of discontent among Japan's neighbors over his nationalistic attitude and conservative track record. Recent events have rekindled the fears.

On Sunday, Yomomi Inada became the fourth member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet to pay his respects at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, triggering an angry response from South Korea's leader and further jeopardizing Japan's already strained ties with its immediate neighbors.

However, the government and the Japanese public appear to be relatively unconcerned at the protestations from overseas.

More than 170 politicians from across the political spectrum have visited the shrine this month, the most since records were first kept in 1989.

A group of Japanese lawmakers including Japan Restoration Party (JRP) member Takeo Hiranuma (front R) leave the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

Many Japanese politicians have visited the Yasukuni Shrine this month

Abe himself did not attend the annual spring festival at the controversial shrine, but he did send a "masakaki" tree, the branches of which are traditionally used in ceremonies for Japan's Shinto religion.

Japan refuses to be intimidated

Visits and offering at Yasukuni have become a focus of anger among nations that were invaded and colonized by Imperial Japan in the early decades of the last century because it is dedicated to more than 2.4 million men and women killed whilst serving the nation.

To China and South Korea, in particular, the most offensive issue is that the shrine is also the last resting place of 14 Class-A war criminals, many of whom were executed.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se cancelled a two-day visit to Tokyo, while his ministry in Seoul expressed "deep regret and concern" over the Japanese government's position on history. "Despite the lapse of time, Japan remains unrepentant of its past misdeeds," it said in a statement.

"My ministers will not yield to any kind of intimidation," Shinzo Abe told parliament on Friday. "It is a matter of course that we have the freedom to express our respect to the precious souls of the war dead."

"The reactions from China and Korea are only to be expected," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, told Deutsche Welle. "For us Japanese conservatives - and that includes Mr Abe - it is only natural that we pay our respects to our war dead. And this is not something that is peculiar to Japan; every nation does the same in its own way.

"But there are some other reasons why so many have gone to Yasukuni this time," he added. "This is one way of showing a stronger stance against China - which is becoming more aggressive in the dispute over the Senkaku islands - but also the people who voted for these politicians would be very angry if their elected representatives did not go to Yasukuni."

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi walks to the front shrine at Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo

Junichiro Koizumi created an uproar when he visited the shrine during his time in office

High ratings for government

The swing to the right in public sentiment throughout Japan is evident in the government's impressive performance in the public opinion polls. In the first by-election since December' general election, the candidate from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Kiyoshi Ejima, took more than double the total number of votes than his nearest challenger.

"I think the LDP has been emboldened because its members now know that they have a leader who supports them and they are increasingly incensed by what Japan sees as provocative actions by China," said Jun Okumura, a political analyst with the Eurasia Group.

"The relationship between Beijing and Tokyo is still deteriorating, no matter what the leaders might say in public, and I think it's fair to say that both sides are incensed now," he added.

"The Japanese side believes it has shown self-restraint in the ongoing dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands and that China is merely using any opportunity to escalate the situation," he said, referring to the Japanese-held islands that China claims as its territory and knows as the Diaoyu archipelago.

The Senkaku islands

Japan is worried about China's claims over what it calls the Senkaku islands

"There is a growing school of thinking in Japan that we simply have to stand up to China or else they will just walk all over us," Okumura said. "There is simmering outrage here and that will only get worse with every escalation."

The real crunch will come in early August, the analysts believe, when Japan traditionally marks the end of the war with a series of events at Yasukuni.

Should the LDP win yet more support in July's elections, which seems likely, and should the dispute with China continue to grate, which seems equally inevitable, then Abe might choose to really show his hand and become the first Japanese leader to visit the shrine while in office since the equally hawkish Junichiro Koizumi in August 2006.

Doing so would be a major statement of intent to the Japanese electorate and the nation's allies and enemies.

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