Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.01.15

Separate the Shrine Visit from the Alliance Agenda

JBPress on January 10, 2014

Recent opinion polls suggest that the silent majority of Japanese must have been doubly surprised on December 26, 2013: first by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's unexpected visit to Yasukuni Shrine and subsequently by an unusual statement from the US Embassy in Tokyo. The ambivalence of Japan's public opinion on the Yasukuni Shrine visit reflects the highly labyrinthine nature of the issue.

A survey conducted by Kyodo on December 28 and 29 was something Mr. Abe may not wish to see. On his shrine visit, 47.1% disapproved while only 43.2% approved. A similar result was seen in a January 4-5 opinion poll by Fuji TV which indicated that more than half of those surveyed did not approve of Mr. Abe's visit to the shrine while less than 40% did approve.

However, the January poll suggests something that the United States may not want to see: about 70% of those polled did not accept China and South Korea's criticism, while nearly 60% did not accept the US statement of "disappointment," either. Finally, the two polls show that the approval rating of the Abe administration basically stayed the same at around 55%.

What does all this mean?

First, more Japanese disapprove of Mr. Abe's shrine visit. Secondly, on the other hand, the majority of Japanese voters seem to consider that the Yasukuni Shrine visit is a domestic issue, and they are unhappy with foreign criticism of or intervention in a domestic affair. Finally, the majority still support the Abe administration despite the shrine visit.

These poll results are a clear indication that democracy is alive and well in Japan, contrary to criticisms by some foreign media about Japan going back down the road to militarism and totalitarianism. While continuing to support Mr. Abe, the silent majority in Japan appreciate neither his shrine visit nor the subsequent foreign criticism, including the US's expression of disappointment.

This must be seriously looked into and analyzed by the policymakers in Washington D.C.

The political reality in Tokyo is not what you read in some English language media. For example, an editorial in the New York Times referred to Mr. Abe's "goal of transforming the Japanese military from one that is strictly for territorial defense to one that can go to war anywhere."

The editorial further stated that "The visit to Yasukuni is part of that agenda," which is not only misleading but also wrong. Mr. Abe's agenda is not to "go to war anywhere."

Quite to the contrary, Mr. Abe's agenda is to make the Japan-US alliance more effective and workable, so that the two allies can work together to deter any ambition to change the status quo in East Asia and the Western Pacific. His agenda includes establishing a National Security Council, releasing a National Security Strategy, accelerating studies on exercising the right to collective self-defense and enacting a new law to protect top secret information. Each of these policy items has been discussed and implemented in close coordination with the US government over the past 12 months and has nothing to do with the shrine visit.

This column seeks neither to support nor criticize the visit. It is intended to remind the readers that the silent majority in Japan are unhappy, not only because the shrine visit is basically an internal matter, but also because they feel somehow betrayed by their closest ally, the United States. This sense of frustration is, of course, not unique and limited to Japan.

Recently, these feelings have been shared by many US allies in the Middle East. For example: they see the US as being more appeasing and willing to make a deal with the new President of Iran. In Egypt, the US policy of non-intervention made matters much worse. For Syria, the Obama administration has ignored urgent calls from allies and friends to arm and support the anti-Assad opposition.

The US policymakers flip-flop and don't wish to be involved or to take sides in the Middle East. This policy is not free from cost. It should be noted that such close US allies as Israel and Saudi Arabia do not hide their displeasure with the United States, not because the US does not support their national causes, but because America looks much less dependable and more indecisive.

The United States is losing the trust of its allies in the Middle East. It appears that the US does not want to take a position because it does not want to be dragged into troubles. However, unwillingness to take a position, even when its allies have high stakes in the issues at hand, results in the perception that the US has abandoned its allies. Once such a perception emerges, nobody trusts the US anymore.

What happened as the result of the US's treatment of its friends and allies in the Middle East could happen in East Asia and the Western Pacific as well. This is the real danger that may be indicated by the recent polls in Japan.