Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have badly misjudged Washington's reaction to his surprise Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine.
In a rare public criticism, the U.S. government expressed disappointment at Abe's first visit as prime minister to the Tokyo shrine that memorializes Japanese war dead along with 14 Class-A war criminals. Both the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the U.S. State Department in Washington expressed their concerns over Abe's visit.
The outing was such a well-kept secret that an aide to Abe reported being surprised to see the prime minister in formal attire on the morning of Dec. 26, just hours before he made the Yasukuni visit.
Abe only informed a few close aides about his intentions. For that reason, some critics say there was not sufficient time to weigh the possible diplomatic fallout from China and South Korea, as well as other nations, including the United States.
While the Abe administration has made strengthening the alliance with the United States a pillar of its foreign policy, there are already signs the Yasukuni visit may have muddied the waters.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was scheduled to call U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel after Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima gave his approval Dec. 27 for the reclamation of land in the Henoko district of Nago where the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will likely be relocated--an issue that has long been a thorn in U.S.-Japan military ties. However, the planned teleconference was canceled at the last minute.
A source said, "We have no idea if the Yasukuni visit was the reason."
The visit caught officials of both the foreign and defense ministries off guard. They were only informed of the visit on the morning of Dec. 26. And, diplomatic channels were only used to inform China and South Korea just before it took place.
An hour later, Onodera hurried to the Foreign Ministry to consult with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida over how to handle potential fallout.
For all other nations, officials sought understanding from their counterparts by passing on a statement released by Abe.
Despite the expression of disappointment by Washington, Abe's aides initially did not seem too concerned about the potential long-term effects the visit would have on bilateral ties.
One high-ranking government official said about the statements, "The United States is in the midst of its Christmas holidays so the wording may not have been properly ironed out."
One Abe aide even expressed frustration toward the United States: "What is the United States doing as an ally? This will only help China."
Other officials, however, see potentially more serious ramifications arising from the visit.
One high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said: "It was shocking to see the United States use the terminology 'disappointed.' If disharmony should arise between Japan and the United States, China, South Korea and North Korea could be emboldened to take stronger measures against Japan."
The effects even overshadowed the Dec. 27 Henoko decision that is a major step in realizing the eventual relocation of the Futenma air station, a long-time concern for the United States.
One government source said, "The Okinawa issue has been eclipsed because of the Yasukuni visit even though it represented a historic step forward."
It remains unclear though as to what really lies behind the criticism. It could be a combination of things such as the manner in which Abe went about the visit or a shift in U.S. priorities due to the changing security environment in East Asia.
In a December visit to South Korea, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said, "The entire region will be more stable and more secure if Japan, South Korea and the United States are able to improve their relations and cooperation with one another."
When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni every year during his administration in the early 2000s, the United States refrained from making comment. One major difference between then and now is the narrowing gap in military capabilities and economic strength between the United States and China.
With the diplomatic and national security shift by the Obama administration to focus more on Asia, coupled with its attempts to deal with the military advances made by Beijing, U.S. diplomacy is seeking more than ever to foster stronger relations amongst its allies.
A high-ranking Pentagon official said Dec. 27 that the statement about being disappointed said everything about Washington's position. The official added the visit would only increase friction between Japan and its neighbors at a time when it is vital for the United States that Japan have good relations with its neighbors.
Another issue that has arisen since Koizumi was prime minister is the confrontation taking place between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
The last thing the Obama administration wants is to become involved in a military conflict triggered by an unexpected clash between Japan and China. For that reason, Washington has called on both nations to avoid any escalation in tensions.
With that said, the United States clearly views the Yasukuni visit as counterproductive.
There are also major foreign policy differences between the Obama administration and the preceding one of George W. Bush, who had a close relationship with Koizumi.
Ari Ratner, a political analyst at the Truman National Security Project in Washington, said the Obama administration's policy toward China has more emphasized constructive engagement in comparison to the Bush administration.
There is also the question of whether Obama, a liberal within the Democratic Party, can hit it off with Abe, who comes from a stronger conservative background.
After a February meeting with Obama, Abe said he felt a chemistry with the U.S. president.
However, that view is not widely shared in the United States.
James Schoff, a senior associate in the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the relationship between the leaders of Japan and the United States is no longer like it was when Bush and Koizumi were in power. He cited the changing geopolitical landscape as a possible reason for the differences in current rapport between the two nation's leaders. The United States, as noted, has shifted much of its national security focus to Asia in recent years. And tensions in the region were also not as high during the Bush and Koizumi era.
Meanwhile, the criticism by Russia directed at Abe's Yasukuni visit stems from the fact that it considers Yasukuni a symbol of Japanese militarism and could represent a challenge to the post-World War II order.
Regarding the four islands off the coast of Hokkaido still occupied by Russia that Japan calls the Northern Territories, Russia has said Japan should negotiate only after acknowledging the results of that war.
If Moscow views Abe's Yasukuni visit as an attempt to advance a different interpretation of World War II, it could take a more cautious approach on discussing their dispute over the Northern Territories or economic issues.
(Takashi Oshima in Washington and Kazuhiro Sekine in Moscow contributed to this article.)
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