Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from right, follows a Shinto priest to pay respect for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo last month. Pic: AP.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe succeeded in ending 2013 with a bang rather than with a whimper: his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26 has rattled East Asia and caused a massive wave of criticism.

The shrine, located in Tokyo, was established in June 1869 as Shokonsha and was then renamed Yasukuni in 1879. According to the Shrine’s official website, “more than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined [..] at Yasukuni Shrine. These are souls of men who made ultimate sacrifice for their nation since 1853 during national crises such as the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident and the Greater East Asian War (World War II)”.

Among the two and a half million divinities, there are over 1,000 war criminals, including 14 Class A criminals condemned after the Second World War. Seven of them were hanged in Sugamo Prison on December 23, 1948. Needless to say, their presence is mostly unwelcome by countries which suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. The fact that politicians sometimes pay their respects at the shrine is perceived by neighbors as proof that Japan has not yet fully come to terms with this turbulent past.

Anger did not take long to erupt after Mr Abe’s visit. According to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang, “what Abe should do now is to admit his mistakes with the Chinese government and people and change his course.” Beijing immediately decided to stop holding meetings with Japanese high authorities, presumably until the end of Mr Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister. “Abe himself closes the door to dialogue with Chinese leaders. The Chinese people do not welcome him,” Mr Qin told reporters.

South Korea’s Culture Minister Yoo Jin-Ryong held a similar opinion, a sign of how effective the Yasukuni dispute is in strengthening ties between Seoul and Beijing. “We can’t help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine… despite concerns and warnings by neighboring countries,” he commented. “The visit… is anachronistic behavior that fundamentally damages not only relations between the South and Japan but also stability and cooperation in Northeast Asia.”

Even the United States – long-time allies of Japan – protested. The US Embassy in Japan wrote in a statement that the US “is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”

That China and South Korea would react angrily was always beyond doubt. That the US would be displeased was an equally safe assumption, given that the US armed forces helped fill the Yasukuni with many of its resting souls. Besides, Washington can hardly be satisfied with the divide between Tokyo and Seoul – both America’s allies – at a time when the rise of China is changing the power equilibrium in East Asia.

Mr Abe was well aware that there would be a backlash. Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine in August 2006 with similar results. Why, then, stir up the flames of nationalism?

According to Zha Daojiong, a professor of Non-traditional Security Studies at Peking University, one reason could be  his willingness to show that the new Japanese administration will stick to the path it has chosen even in the face of international pressure. “One possible reading of his action is that he might have wanted to demonstrate resolve – to anybody domestic and international – as a leader who stands firm on his own choice,” Mr. Zha told Asian Correspondent.

Domestic politics plays a role, too. In the words of Andrew Scobell, a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation: “Abe’s visit to Yasukuni was quite clearly driven primarily by domestic political considerations. He knows that such a visit will boost his public approval ratings and play well with his conservative base.” According to William Choong, a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Abe is playing to his nationalist gallery at home. His grand narrative is that of a proud Japan; a proud Japan will have to craft its own approach to history.”

Tokyo may be willing to play with fire because the risk of getting burnt is quite remote. “While there will be real fallout this is likely to be limited for pragmatic reasons at least where Beijing is concerned,” said Dr Scobell. “China does so much trade with Japan that Beijing would be reluctant to shoot itself in the foot economically.” Professor Zha, too, contended that given the importance of the Japanese economy there is little leverage that China or anybody else can exercise: “a background factor may as well be [Abe’s] belief in the prowess of Japanese companies’ commanding role in the regional networks of production. If that is true, he may as well be correct. There is little either China or South Korea can do about their economies’ dependency on Japan.”

On January 6, the Japanese Mr Abe called for a meeting with China and South Korea to explain his position. “At the moment, there is no plan for a summit meeting, but since there are some difficulties and issues we should be speaking together without setting any preconditions,” he told reporters. “We are not making any direct approach on this, but the door to dialogue is open. I would like to hold Japan-China and Japan-South Korea summit meetings.”

The proposal has fallen on deaf ears. Professor Zha told us that the offer “is by nature rhetorical and can hardly be convincing at all. Chinese and South Korean protests have been ongoing for decades. What would make him think that those two governments would behave any differently, now or in the future.”

Was it an emergency move to save the day after so much angst had been directed at Tokyo? Not quite so, according to Dr Scobell. “Abe’s call for talks with Beijing and Seoul was likely part of a larger plan rather than any ad hoc reaction to a perceived crisis or ‘emergency,’” he argued. Dr Choong told us he seriously doubts that Abe could believe such offers would be taken up: “if he really thinks so, he’s been ill-advised by his bureaucrats.” More likely, Tokyo’s goal is to show willingness to cooperate while upholding the administration’s line.

Even though real risks might be low and the plan well prepared, the Yasukuni Shrine is still a powerful symbol: visiting it means putting another brick in the wall dividing East Asian nations. Historical memories are especially important when one takes into account sharp nationalist feelings in China. “Nationalism plays significant roles in both Chinese and Japanese politics but this dynamic is more potent and more central in China than in Japan,” Dr Scobell argued. “This is because in China, in stark contrast to Japan, political leaders were not democratically elected. The basis of the political legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party are solely performance based; specifically on two fragile pillars: continued economic prosperity and ensuring China’s standing as a respected great power on the global stage.” Which helps explain why, when challenged, Beijing feels the need to react as strongly as possible: “Actions by Japan or Japanese leaders can quite easily call in to question the second pillar and Chinese leaders will feel the urgent need to respond swiftly and vigorously in ways that they think will reinforce this pillar.”