'Worsening ties embolden Abe to make shrine visit'

JAPAN - Ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power late last year, Japan's relations with China and South Korea have sunk to new depths and they show little prospect of improving.

Ironically, this state of affairs was what apparently convinced Mr Abe to go ahead with a visit to the Yasukuni war shrine - one that he had long wanted to make.

He was deterred from visiting the shrine before, knowing it would definitely create diplomatic problems with Japan's neighbours, which saw such visits as an attempt to glorify militarism.

Yet, even though he stayed away from Yasukuni during the spring and autumn festivals, and also avoided going there on Aug15, a sensitive date that marks the end of World War II for the Japanese, the ritual offerings he sent to the shrine on these occasions still angered China and South Korea.

Bilateral issues, including territorial disputes, also prompted the leaders of these states to reject Mr Abe's overtures for summit talks.

The influential Asahi Shimbun daily suggested that he decided to visit Yasukuni because he felt ties with China and South Korea could not get any worse.

"Mr Abe thought that the political fallout from a visit would be limited since he is unable to persuade China and South Korea to sit down for summit talks anyway," it said in a commentary.

However, by worsening the situation in the region, Mr Abe was limiting his future diplomatic options, the paper added.

The Japanese leader evidently thought that yesterday, the first anniversary of his taking office, provided a good excuse for paying homage at the shrine.

He told reporters he chose to go on his first anniversary so he could "report before the souls of the war dead how my administration has worked for one year". In addition, he renewed a pledge not to go to war again.

Moreover, visiting Yasukuni before the year was out enabled Mr Abe to realise his long-avowed desire to make annual pilgrimages to the shrine during his term as prime minister.

Last year, while running for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September and during campaigning for the Lower House elections in December, he expressed "extreme regret" that he had not gone to the shrine during his first year-long stint as prime minister, back in 2006 to 2007.

Yesterday, the Japanese leader was aiming to please his supporters as well.

The Mainichi Shimbun daily said his visit to Yasukuni was intended to serve as a sop to the large number of conservative Japanese voters who support him, as well as to the right-leaning lawmakers in his own party.

Many LDP lawmakers are members of a non-partisan parliamentary group that pays regular visits to Yasukuni on important shrine dates.

Mr Abe himself went to the shrine with the group when he was not prime minister.

His visit on Thursday was not only fraught with political risk but also likely to damage the interests of Japanese companies in China.

The leading Nikkei business daily said the latest spat could prompt Chinese consumers to turn away from Japanese products, especially cars. Vehicle sales had just started to pick up again after suffering a boycott last year triggered by Japan's nationalisation of some of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu isles.

Major retailers such as casual apparel brand Uniqlo and department store Takashimiya - which had also been hurt by the territorial dispute - could see their sales shrink further.

Thursday was the first time in seven years that an incumbent Japanese premier had prayed at Yasukuni. The last to do so was then Premier Junichiro Koizumi, on Aug 15, 2006, shortly before he left office.

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