After keeping a low diplomatic profile since taking office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to show his true colors as a nationalist, threatening to further exacerbate Japan's difficulties with China and South Korea.
Abe intensified his criticism of China's intrusions into Japanese territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands at an Upper House Budget Committee meeting on April 23.
Earlier that day, eight Haijian vessels from China's State Oceanic Administration entered the territorial waters, marking the largest single incursion since the territorial row between the two nations flared up in September.
"There is no room to negotiate since they are inherent parts of Japan's territory," Abe told the meeting, referring to the islets in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan. "It is only to be expected that we would forcibly expel people if they tried to land on the islands."
Abe also acknowledged that Japan made concessions to Taipei on an agreement reached on April 10 between Japan and Taiwan on fishing rights in waters around the islands.
"We took into account Taipei's stance that (it) will not partner with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands," he said.
Taipei has shifted its position to clinch the fishing deal with Japan by skipping the sovereignty of the islands since Abe's Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in December.
Before Abe's remarks on April 23, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained that Japan decided to reach the agreement following a series of talks that began in 1996 to "restore order in fishing."
Abe made another controversial move at the meeting when he raised doubts about honoring the 1995 statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressing apology and remorse over Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula and Japan's invasion into China and other Asian countries. The statement was released to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
"The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community," Abe said. "Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from."
At a meeting of the same lawmakers a day earlier, he said that his administration has not necessarily embraced the Murayama statement in its entirety.
Abe, who has long been known to have hawkish leanings, was supposed to refrain from discussing his conservative view of history ahead of the Upper House election in July so as not to make waves in the diplomatic arena.
But the shift shown by these remarks reflects his distrust of South Korea and China, sources say.
Both South Korea and China blasted Japan when Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and two other Cabinet members visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to coincide with the start of its annual spring festival on April 21.
The shrine, which memorializes 14 convicted Class-A war criminals along with the war dead, is widely seen among neighboring countries as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.
In what his aides described as "a show of his intention not to personally visit," Abe made an offering of branches of the sacred evergreen sakaki tree, which is used in Shinto rituals, on April 21.
The gesture was meant to avert the expected backlash from South Korea and China.
But Seoul took issue with the April 21 visit by Aso, the second highest ranking minister in the Abe administration and himself a former prime minster, as well as with Abe's offering.
To protest, South Korea canceled a trip by foreign minister Yun Byung-se to Japan scheduled for this weekend.
The reaction reportedly led Abe to suspect that Japan will get caught up in South Korea's bluster despite the considerations it has shown to Seoul.
"It became clear that giving consideration is pointless," an aide to Abe described his thoughts. "(South Korea) will protest anyway no matter what Japan does."
Aso dismissed Seoul's strong response in a news conference on April 23, saying reactions overseas will not have a significant overall impact on diplomacy.
On the same day, 168 Diet members, including 132 LDP politicians, visited Yasukuni Shrine as part of a multipartisan group that encourages lawmakers to visit the shrine.
It was the largest number of Diet members to visit since the group began keeping count in 1987.
Although Natsuo Yamaguchi, who leads the pacifist New Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, called on Diet members to exercise self-restraint in light of the ramifications at home and abroad, voices such as his are hardly gathering momentum.
Abe has been waging a diplomatic offensive to counter China over the territorial row by visiting ASEAN nations, the United States and Mongolia since he took office in December after the LDP's landslide victory in the Lower House election.
But he has failed to make any progress on the main front—Japan's diplomacy with nations in East Asia.
Abe tried to paint China as the one refusing to start a dialogue with Japan in deliberations at the Upper House Budget Committee meeting on April 23.
"Japan's channel for a dialogue is always open," he said. "(China) should not leverage a meeting as a tool to use in diplomatic negotiations."
Japan sought a dialogue with China at an annual summit of Japan, South Korea and China, which Seoul, chair of the summit, initially expected in late May.
But it was shelved after China signaled its reluctance in the light of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which are called the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese.
Visits from Cabinet members to Yasukuni Shrine have also taken a toll on Japan's relations with South Korea.
South Korea approached Japan about talks between Yun and his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, after prospects for a trilateral summit materializing in the coming months grew dismal.
It would have been the first meeting between the two since South Korean President Park Geun-hye came to power.
Japan expected to participate in the meeting as a first step toward patching up the soured bilateral ties after a standoff over the sovereignty of the Takeshima islets, which are called Dokdo in Korean.
Aides to the prime minister expressed concern that the two nations may not be able to hold talks in the future after the one scheduled between the top diplomats was canceled because of differences over the shrine visit.
With no minister-level talks with South Korea and China, Japan cannot deepen its discussion with the two countries over how to cope with North Korea's repeated threats together.
The impasse is a source of concern, experts say, although Tokyo and Washington reaffirmed the importance of working together with South Korea with regard to North Korea when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kishida on April 14.
Japan initially planned to close ranks with South Korea and China in a joint approach toward North Korea, according to a senior official with the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
But its strategy has yet to produce the intended result, according to the experts.
South Korea on April 24 criticized Abe for his remarks on what constitutes aggression.
Kim Kyou-hyun, South Korea’s first vice foreign minister, protested the prime minister's remarks, saying Japan’s perception of history is flawed.
“We express deep regrets over Abe’s remarks that call into question his perception of history,” Kim said. “It is regrettable that anachronistic remarks were made.”
South Korea’s newspapers reported on Abe’s comments on the front pages of their April 24 editions, also carrying photos of Diet members visiting Yasukuni Shrine.
“Historical perception of the Abe administration and the LDP is coming out in the open,” the Hankyoreh said.
The Dong-A Ilbo said in an editorial, “To create the proper atmosphere for South Korea, China and Japan to engage in talks, Tokyo should not further test the patience of neighboring nations.”
Meanwhile, Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, on April 23 criticized Japanese Cabinet members’ visit to Yasukuni Shrine.
“Where Japan is heading is putting its neighbors on heightened alert,” she said. “Japan should stop forcing itself into isolation.”
The Chinese government gave credit to Abe for working to improve bilateral ties by visiting China in October 2006, shortly after he took office as prime minister in his first tenure.
But Beijing’s view of Abe turned more critical after Abe attacked China in an interview with a U.S. newspaper in February, saying that the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule is eroding.
Abe giving tacit approval to Aso and two other Cabinet members to visit the shrine has added fuel to the fire.
“His right-wing convictions are being revealed,” said a high-ranking official at a Chinese government-affiliated think tank.
China’s State Oceanic Administration defended the entry of its eight surveillance vessels, including the Haijian 50, among its largest patrol boats, in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands on April 23, saying it was in response to a group of boats chartered by Japanese political groups approaching the islands.
“We thwarted the right-wingers’ attempt,” an official said.
The Chinese foreign ministry lodged a “strong protest” to the Japanese side.
(Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing and Akira Nakano in Seoul contributed to this article.)
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