The word “shrine” normally has a peaceful, healing sound to it, conjuring images of worshippers engaged in a little quiet contemplation before candle-lit statues in Compostela or Assisi. But in Japan the word can assume different connotations, which is why the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to the shrine at Yasukuni has caused consternation in East Asia, even stoking fears of military conflict between the region’s two great powers.
Built in honour of the Japanese war dead, it is not the bones of countless samurai warriors that are the source of contention in Yasukuni but the remains of more recent fighters: several hundred men convicted after the Second World War of having committed war crimes in Japanese-occupied China and Korea.
Memories in China of the Rape of Nanking have not faded, which is why Beijing has denounced Shinzo Abe’s pilgrimage to Yasukuni with great passion. The spat might not matter so much if relations between East Asia’s two great powers were not dismal already. As it is, the row has injected a fresh dose of venom into what was a poisoned relationship.
It occurs as a dangerous stand-off over a clutch of islands shows no sign of calming down. China and Japan have tussled for decades over the uninhabited Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands, which Japan seized in the 19th century but did not nationalise until last year, when the government bought out the owner.
China made a counter-move on 23 November, abruptly proclaiming an air-defence identification zone over much of the East China Sea, including the islands. Japan’s response to this diktat was surprisingly meek. Its two main airlines initially complied, re-routing flights around the zone to avoid confronting the Chinese. But an outraged America did not comply and sent two B-52 bombers across the zone on 26 November, a provocation to which China thankfully did not respond.
Japan is not the only country in the region observing China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy with foreboding, which is why Mr Abe’s visit to the shrine was foolish in terms of Japan’s own strategic goals.
China’s assertiveness also worries South Korea and Taiwan, not to mention Vietnam. But the Koreans suffered at Japanese hands in the Second World War, and they resent attempts by Japan to honour its wartime generals almost as much as the Chinese do. The shrine issue has thus rallied Seoul and Taipei to the side of Beijing, against Tokyo.
To most outsiders, it seems inconceivable that two such powerful and sophisticated countries as China and Japan could come to blows over a few uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. However, stranger things have happened. In the summer of 1914, none of the great statesmen of Europe believed that the assassination of an unpopular Austrian archduke in a remote province of the Habsburg Empire could possibly propel the whole of the continent into a devastating war. With the centenary year only days away, it is not surprising that some are tempted to see parallels between Europe in 1914 and East Asia today. Hopefully it won’t come to that. In the meantime, Mr Abe should beware of shrines.