The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan has received a lot of attention in the past year, and not just from visitors. The shrine is controversial because it commemorates Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal. Japanese officials' visits to the memorial stir up emotions in China and South Korea, who view the Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression and feel that the Japanese have shown insufficient remorse for wartime atrocities. In fact, Chinese officials have likened Japanese politicians' visits to the shrine to the idea of German politicians laying flowers on Hitler's bunker.
Yesterday - just a day before President Obama's arrival in Japan - about 150 Japanese lawmakers visited the shrine as part of Yasukuni's spring festivals. Prime Minister Abe decided not to visit the shrine, opting instead to send an offering of the “masakaki,” a ceremonial tree used in Shinto rituals.
This is a good move on the part of Abe. His last visit to the Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013 - the first such visit by a Japanese Prime Minister in seven years - heightened tensions with China and South Korea and even drew criticism from the United States. Many people in Japan were also critical of the Prime Minister's December visit to the Yasukuni shrine, according to Asahi Shimbun polls conducted after Abe's visit. Many Japanese also expressed concerned about Abe's policies toward China and South Korea.
According to a January 25-26 Asahi Shimbun telephone survey (questions translated by The Mansfield Foundation), slightly more among the Japanese public said that Prime Minister Abe was "wrong" (46%) than "right" (41%) to visit the shrine, and a majority thought the visit had a negative influence on Japan's foreign policy (56% vs. 36% not a negative influence). By a 5 to 4 margin, more Japanese said that it is important to take "seriously" the strong criticisms of Abe's visit to Yasukuni from China, South Korea, the United States and Russia (51% to 40%).
These results are a bit different from those reported in an August 2013 survey conducted in Japan by Genron NPO/Public Opinion Research Institute Corporation. That survey, conducted before Abe's visit to Yasukuni, found that nearly half thought there was "no problem" if a Japanese Prime Minister wanted to visit the shrine (46%) and an additional 28 percent thought it was ok "as long as the visit was made as a private citizen." Only one in ten (10%) thought it was not ok, whether as an official visit or as a private citizen.
Looking to the visit's broader impact, a February 15-18, 2014 Asahi Shimbun poll showed that a majority of the Japanese public were concerned ["thought that it matters"] a lot (28%) or to some degree (50%) if Japan's relations with China and Korea deteriorate. Asked about Abe's policies toward Japan and South Korea, about half said they opposed (48%) Abe's approach, compared to a third who favored (33%). And at least in February, half of the Japanese public thought that Abe should "rush to hold a summit conference with China and Korea" (52%) versus a third who thought the Prime Minister should not (34%).
Hold that thought. One of President Obama's purposes for his stops in Asia is to see if he can persuade Japan and South Korea to set aside their differences and cooperate, much as he tried to do in March when he orchestrated a trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit at The Hague.
At the very least, more around the world are becoming aware of the sensitivities regarding the Yasukuni shrine. Just today, Justin Bieber apologized to his fans in China after he posted a photo of his visit to Yasukuni to >15 million beliebers on Instagram this week. According to TIME magazine, he responded today (via Instagram): “While in Japan I asked my driver to pull over for which I saw a beautiful shrine. I was misled to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer. To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry. I love you China and I love you Japan.”