In the calendar of political events of this month, October 17th has loomed as a red-letter day. It is the opening day of Yasukuni Shrine’s Autumn Festival, when scores of members of the Association of Diet Members Visiting Yasukuni Shrine Together (Minna de Yasukuni ni sanpai suru kokkai giiin no kai) pay their respects en masse. These mass visits are always the subject of intense scrutiny by international and domestic news media, if only for the chances to take pictures of grim-faced, dark-suited Japanese parliamentarians filing in and out of a shrine where “14 Class-A war criminals are honored.”
While these events are always a source of enervation in Sino-Japanese and Japan-South Korean relations, this autumn’s festival threatens to be especially provocative. Three members of Abe Shinzo’s first Cabinet — his ministers of Internal Affairs, Public Safety and Administrative Reform — would attend Yasukuni’s festivals on a regular basis. However, these ministers avoided participating in the mass march of Diet members, choosing to pay their respects either early in the morning as individuals or later in the day with a handful of loyal associates.
It seems unlikely that the current crop of Cabinet ministers, eleven of whom (by at least one scholar’s count) are members of the ‘Minna de’ group of regular Yasukuni visitors, might pay their respects in a low-key way. The new Minister of Internal Affairs Takaichi Sanae, for example, has been in the #1 lead center position of the ‘Minna de’ marches for many years now. Several of the new members of the new Cabinet, most interestingly four of the five female members, have been identified as militant defenders of the right and indeed the responsibility of Cabinet members to visit Yasukuni.
More Cabinet members than ever are making a show of visiting Yasukuni on the first festival day since the inauguration of the second Abe Cabinet, of course bodes ill for the Abe government’s efforts to improve Sino-Japanese and Japan-ROK relations. A mass visit of ministers would seriously undermine the energetic attempts to secure first summits between Prime Minister Abe and the leaders of China and South Korea.
In a surprise development last month, however, one of the four female Cabinet members, generally considered certain a shoo-in to stop in at the autumn festival, Minister of Justice Matsushima Midori, told journalists that she did not foresee visiting Yasukuni at any point during her service as minister.
This bold announcement, made in response to an ambush question at the end of a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, overturns the image of the current Abe Cabinet as more militant and radical revisionist than its predecessor. If Matsushima, who in her answer reasserted her firm belief that Diet members should visit Yasukuni, can see her obligations as a Cabinet Minister as requiring a special caution as regards international perceptions of Japan, then the all-important issue of whether Prime Minister Abe Shinzo himself is willing to forego a Yasukuni visit comes into play. More pessimistic observers like myself have always felt that there was zero chance of the politically resurrected Abe ever trading his annual pilgrimage to Yasukuni for a political advantage, even if the prize was dramatically improved relations with both China and South Korea. Matsushima’s detailed explanation of why she will not be going to Yasukuni, a response to a question put to her well after the scheduled end of a press conference when some in the audience were rising from their chairs to leave, suddenly throws the pessimistic scenario into confusion.
Pessimists about Abe’s intentions are not lacking in signals to the contrary. Close Abe confidant Koichi Hagiuda, in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg published on September 30, indicated that he believed Abe would be paying a visit to Yasukuni this year. Hagiuda heretofore has been a reliable indicator of the direction of the Prime Minister’s thinking. During the first 18 months of Abe’s premiership, Hagiuda’s pronouncements and predictions were so often on the money that many in the news media considered him Abe’s private news and public relations service.
Hagiuda’s credibility can, however, be questioned. His simultaneous pronouncements on Yasukuni, the Kono Statement, and the casino legalization bill last month undermined the Abe government’s negotiating positions with the Chinese government, the South Korean government, and LDP coalition partner Komeito, respectively. In the case of Yasukuni, nothing would guarantee a negative outcome for upcoming bilateral negotiations between Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of Beijing APEC more than Abe’s purported oracle stating that Abe will visit Yasukuni before the year is out.
Hagiuda’s being under orders to torpedo not just negotiations with the Chinese, but negotiations with South Koreans and New Komeito, seems implausible. The alternate explanation is that he is running interference for the Prime Minister, shooting off his mouth in a manner so as to disguise the progress Abe and his party have made in accepting the erroneous demands of the most important counterparts.
I believe the surprise Matsushima announcement should probably be read as a sign of increased, and not decreased, sensibility, self-control and flexibility in the post-Reshuffle Abe government, carrying a possibility that Abe will forego the matsuri sawagi (“festival madness”) he so stubbornly indulged himself in last year.
Michael Cucek (known to many as simply “MTC”) is Langley Esquire’s chief advisor for issues related to Japanese politics and social issues. An Adjunct Fellow at the Temple University Japan Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, he is well-known as the author of Shisaku, one of the foremost blogs covering politics in Japan. A two-decade resident of Tokyo, you can listen in on Michael’s (often irreverent) take on Japan news and international affairs on Twitter at @MichaelTCucek