By Jeong Nam-ku, Tokyo correspondent
Is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planning to visit the Yasukuni Shrine?
Observers believe so, with a proxy visit by a special aide to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader this past Aug. 15 - a holiday known in the country as the “memorial day for the end of the war” - coming after Abe sent a tribute during the shrine’s annual spring festival in April.
Now the Japanese press is predicting that Abe will attend the annual autumn festival on Oct. 17-20, although talks with South Korea and China could prove to be important variables.
Abe did not visit the shrine during his first term as Prime Minister in 2006-07, but he did attend for spring and autumn festivals and Aug. 15 holidays after leaving office. The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo honors many Japanese war criminals who were responsible for imperial-era atrocities.
An Aug. 16 report by the Yomiuri Shimbun quoted close associates of Prime Minister Abe as predicting that if he does choose to attend as Prime Minister, he would probably do so at one of the annual festivals.
Sources said the Japanese government expects a visit during the autumn festival would trigger less of an outcry from South Korea or China than one on the highly symbolic occasion of Aug. 15 would.
The question now is whether Abe will be able to arrange summits with South Korea and China.
After the House of Councillors election on July 21, Abe said he hoped to have talks with Seoul and Beijing. Possible occasions over the next few months include the G20 meeting in Russia on Sept. 5-6 and an APEC summit in Bali on Oct. 7-8.
Tokyo reportedly hopes to make contact by exchanging greetings with leaders at those occasions, possibly getting a foot in the door for formal bilateral talks.
But a Yasukuni visit around the time of those meetings would be tantamount to a betrayal.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported an associate of the Prime Minister as being relatively sanguine.
“He doesn’t need to worry about visiting [the shrine] at a time when he’s expected to stay in power for a long time,” the associate was quoted as saying on condition of anonymity. “Opportunities will present themselves.”
Analysts are expecting the Abe administration to adopt an attitude of “strategic neglect” toward South Korean and Chinese complaints about the Prime Minister’s Yasukuni visits.
In response to a reporter’s Aug. 15 question about his plans for responding to the issue, Abe said, “I’m not going to talk about it, because to do so would help turn it into a political and diplomatic issue.”
The Yomiuri Shimbun also quoted a government official as saying that Abe had omitted a line about “causing great damage and suffering to the people of the countries of Asia” in an address at an Aug. 15 commemorative ceremony for the Japanese war dead as an “expression of his wish not to have paying respects at Yasukuni Shrine be a political or diplomatic issue.” The line had been included in previous speeches delivered by past Prime Ministers.
The New Komei Party, part of a coalition government with the LDP, has expressed its agreement with a Dec. 2002 proposal by an advisory organization to then-Chief Cabinet Minister Yasuko Fukuda to establish a separate place of national commemoration in order to avoid frictions with South Korea and Japan, calling it a “good solution.”
But Abe indicated his unhappiness with the idea in a May 14 reply to the House of Councillors budget committee.
“It would be a mistake to create another facility simply because visiting the Yasukuni Shrine has become an issue,” he wrote.
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