Analysis: Japan's Abe bets U.S. alliance, ratings can weather shrine visit

TOKYO Fri Dec 27, 2013 4:43am EST

1 of 5. A protester (C) from a right-wing, conservative and anti-Japanese civic group demonstrates during a rally denouncing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, December 27, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a shrine for war dead outraged China and South Korea, and also upset Washington and his government coalition partner - but he appears confident the alliances and his popularity will not be affected.

On Thursday, Abe became the first Japanese premier in seven years to pay his respects at Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal after World War Two are honored along with those who died in battle.

The shrine is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression. Abe, however, is a staunch conservative and the pilgrimage is part of his mission to recast Japan's wartime past in a less apologetic light and revive national pride.

The visit predictably sparked outrage in China and South Korea, countries with which Japan's ties were already strained by rows over disputed isles and bitter wartime memories.

It also prompted a rare public expression of "disappointment" from the United States and a statement of regret from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) partner, the more dovish New Komeito party.

Those familiar with Abe's thinking said the prime minister, who took office a year ago for a second term promising to revive a "strong Japan", was well aware of the risks.

"The Americans are dissatisfied? Too bad. Will they still be our ally? Yes," said one Japanese diplomatic source familiar with Abe's thinking. "The economy, income, social welfare - these are the concerns of the Japanese people. Foreign policy probably won't have a decisive impact on the opinion polls."

Abe, although hailing from the most conservative wing of the LDP, avoided going to Yasukuni during his first 2006-2007 term in order to improve ties with China. Relations with Beijing had been badly hurt, in part, by annual visits to the shrine by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

At first Abe stuck to a similar course in hopes of holding a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As far back as the summer, however, aides said Abe might visit the shrine if there was no breakthrough in ties.

"For the prime minister, improving ties with China is a matter of national interest, so if he can succeed in that, he can hold back," an aide to Abe said in August. "If it looks as if things are not improving, he will go."

But the chill in ties with China, frayed by a row over East China Sea isles claimed by both nations, deepened after Beijing announced an air defense zone last month, including air space over the disputed land.

"This time, China was not willing to make a deal on the Senkaku," the diplomatic source said, using the Japanese name for the isles known as the Diaoyu in China.

Critics said Abe had now ensured the chill would persist.

"I think it was a seriously counter-productive and irresponsible move and put regional relations in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.

TURNING THE TABLE

Whether Abe had fully anticipated the rare rebuke from the United States, Japan's closest ally, is far from clear.

Kyodo news agency said the U.S. government was given just one hour's notice of Abe's visit to Yasukuni by its embassy in Tokyo. Experts said the visit would strain the alliance.

Until recently, U.S. officials had seen Abe as restraining his nationalist instincts and been inclined to blame China and South Korea for the strained relations, said Yoshihide Soeya, Japan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

"Abe has now turned the table," he said.

Washington has welcomed Abe's efforts to boost Japan's military posture and assume more of the alliance's defense burden, but been less happy with Abe's revisionist stance on history.

"What the Yasukuni visit does is raise for the U.S. government the need to determine Abe's reliability as an ally and partner in Asia," said one former U.S. official.

On the domestic front, Abe is also betting his support ratings can withstand any impact from the controversial visit.

Abe's ratings slid to under 50 percent in some polls this month after his ruling bloc steamrolled a strict state secrets act through parliament that critics said had echoes of the wartime regime, but they remain high for a Japanese leader.

Trouble could emerge if the economy dips or Abe puts his conservative agenda ahead of economic policies.

"The top priority for Japan now is to revive the economy," said an editorial in the Nikkei business daily.

"What can be achieved by causing political confusion that polarizes national opinion?"

Japanese voters have long been divided on whether leaders should pay their respects at Yasukuni - but protests from China against Koizumi's visits created a backlash against what some people saw as foreign interference in a domestic matter.

Since then, Japanese concern about China's military assertiveness has steadily grown and a fresh barrage of criticism from Beijing could move opinion in favor of Abe.

"The crisis he instigated will lead to a 'rally around the leader' dynamic that will blunt domestic criticism of his security agenda," Kingston said.

Others disagreed. "The net effect is the division of Japanese society getting deeper, which is not good for Abe in carrying out some other (parts of his) conservative agenda," Woodrow Wilson Center's Soeya said.