Abe's strategic Yasukuni gambit


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to media after paying a customary New Year's visit at Ise shrine in Ise, central Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo January 6, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Abe seems perfectly happy to let Beijing and Seoul squawk, since it does little to interrupt his defense plans

    Tweet This

  • Mr. Abe has never made any secret of his conservatism

    Tweet This

While East Asia and Washington have focused in recent weeks on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, his critics have missed the successful strategic game that he is playing. Both media and foreign governments treated Mr. Abe's visit to the shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined, as proof of his right-wing nationalism. But Mr. Abe has never made any secret of his conservatism. Rather, the December visit shows Mr. Abe is calculating that greater diplomatic tensions are worth risking for concrete gains in Japan's defense capabilities and security relationships.

First, Mr. Abe held fast to his foreign and security goals even as he tried to forge better working relations with Beijing and Seoul. Yet other than brief informal chats at the September G-20 summit, South Korea's President Park Geun-hye and China's President Xi Jinping have steadfastly refused to meet him formally. In November, moreover, the Chinese established a controversial air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that overlapped Japan's own air zone around the disputed Senkaku Islands. A year's worth of activity apparently convinced Mr. Abe that his energies would best be spent where a clear return on investment can be found.

The most important return was solidifying the U.S.-Japan alliance. Crucially, Mr. Abe secured the long-awaited approval to build a new airbase in Okinawa for U.S. Marines. This had become a major irritant to the U.S.-Japan alliance since 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan had upended an agreement to move the Marines out of their congested Futenma base. In addition, Mr. Abe also released a wise men's report that called for Japan to be able to exercise collective self-defense with other nations, for example, over sea lane security, something Washington has long desired.

Second, Mr. Abe has succeeded in deepening Japan's relationship with India. While Beijing and Seoul were excoriating his visit to Yasukuni, New Delhi announced Mr. Abe as the chief foreign guest at India's Republic Day military parade later this month. That follows on the heels of the visit of Japan's defense minister to New Delhi in early January. India looms increasingly large in Japan's calculations, both as a democratic partner and a strategic counterweight to China.

Just as importantly, Tokyo is making a major outreach to Southeast Asia. Many nations in that region have their own territorial disputes with China, and have felt Beijing's pressure in recent years. Mr. Abe has provided $19 billion in aid and loans while visiting all ten Southeast Asian nations in his first year in office. A clear component of his outreach is to improve defense communication and cooperation, a goal already sought by the Philippines, among others.

Internally, Mr. Abe continues to focus on making Japan a "normal" nation in security issues. He released the country's first national security strategy last year and set up a permanent version of a national security council. He is also moving forward on revising the ban on arms exports that has helped isolate the country's defense industry and prevented closer security ties with foreign nations.

Mr. Abe's calculations seem clear. He is playing a strategic game, willing to accept diplomatic criticism while making concrete improvements in Japan's security posture. He is even willing to let the Americans criticize him since he is giving them what they want, a new airbase, while tying Washington closer to Tokyo through military realignment. As for Beijing and Seoul, he seems perfectly happy to let them squawk, since it does little to interrupt his defense plans. The Yasukuni visit is best interpreted as part of a much larger reorientation of Japan's global role that Mr. Abe aims to achieve. This may be today's version of the "Japan that can say no," to adopt the famous saying of former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.

What then should his neighbors and allies do? Mrs. Park of South Korea seems happy to explore closer ties with China, but Seoul's natural partner in Asia is the equally liberal Japan. It is in Seoul's long-term interest to figure out a way to put history behind it to improve relations with Japan, even as it is up to Tokyo to more fully and clearly make its regret and remorse over wartime atrocities known to Korea.

China will do well to understand that its actions have moved a large segment of the Japanese public away from their reflexive pacifism. Beijing's continued pressure on Japan and menacing military buildup is only pushing Tokyo in directions that will make China feel even less secure, not least due to a steady strengthening of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.

As for the U.S., Washington may not be happy with Mr. Abe's visit, but it approves of most of his defense and security goals. A more nuanced U.S. diplomatic policy would recognize Mr. Abe's Yasukuni visit for what it was, and not strain relations with Tokyo with opprobrium. During 2014, what will count will be the U.S.'s actions to maintain stability in Asia, not its diplomatic attempts to keep all sides happy.


Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

  • Phone: 202-862-5848
    Email: michael.auslin@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Shannon Mann
    Phone: 202-862-5911
    Email: shannon.mann@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image Getting it right: US national security policy and al Qaeda since 2011
image Net neutrality rundown: What the NPRM means for you
image The Schuette decision
image Snatching failure from victory in Afghanistan
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Event Registration is Closed
Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.