Will Shinzo Abe’s Yasukuni Visit Hurt Relations in Washington?

Will Shinzo Abe’s Yasukuni Visit Hurt Relations in Washington?

On Thursday, Dec. 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing condemnation from China and South Korea, as well as a harshly worded statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo that many found surprising. But as Dennis Halpin, a former advisor on Asian issues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS explained to me, the 14 Class A War Criminals enshrined in Yasukuni are controversial not only in East Asia:

"Of the almost two-an-a-half million souls enshrined at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for giving their lives in service to the Japanese Emperor, there should be one name that stands out for every American: Hideki Tojo, General of the Japanese Imperial Army and wartime Prime Minister, who issued the orders for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack, which killed nearly 2,400 Americans, was the deadliest on U.S. soil until September 11, 2001.

The December 7 date of that attack was, as President Franklin Roosevelt told a stunned nation the next day ‘a date which will live in infamy.’ Surely Americans, even with their sense of historic amnesia, have not forgotten what Tojo unleashed? While they may be too young for Pearl Harbor, most Americans alive today remember the stunning and brutal attack of the morning of September 11, 2001, and the national pledge to never forget. How can Americans ignore those who would go and pay homage to the memory of Hideki Tojo any more than they would ignore a similar tribute to Osama bin Laden? 

The last Japanese Prime Minister to visit Yasukuni Shrine, Junichiro Koizumi, paid a price in Washington when he visited in 2006. Koizumi had planned to address Congress. My old boss Henry Hyde (R-IL), then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, learned of Koizumi’s plans to visit Yasukuni after his Washington visit. Hyde stated it would be a cause of concern for the World War II generation if Koizumi spoke to the Congress from the Chamber of the House of Representatives where FDR delivered his ‘date of infamy’ speech, and then returned to Tokyo to pay homage to Tojo. The matter was dropped, and Koizumi had to accept, instead, a trip with President George W. Bush on Air Force One to Graceland. (Koizumi was an enthusiastic Elvis fan.)"

Abe has had a pretty remarkable year so far — particularly on the economic front. But internationally, he’s probably better known for his nationalism. Will Abe’s decision to visit the shrine hurt his standing in the United States as well?