Following in the footsteps of his predecessor and political mentor Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe has been elected president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and prime minister. Abe's ascension to the top job not only indicates a continuation of Koizumi's pro-US and anti-China stance, but also a new conservative era for Japan.
Sino-Japanese relations will remain at a low ebb and the Japanese will also begin a new wave of debate on whether their top leaders should continue to visit the Yasukuni shrine or begin to mend relations with China. Earlier this year, Koizumi angered China on many occasions, but Beijing decided to put up with him simply because it had high expectations for Abe.
Beijing believes that as Koizumi's era has come to an end, it can accept anyone who is willing to refrain from praying at the shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals from World War II. However, many are probably unaware that even though Koizumi is on his way out, the debate that he has triggered or further visits to Yasukuni will have a tremendous impact on Japan's future. Beijing's hopes will soon be dashed because Japan's neo-conservative faction is poised to exert its influence and stir things up with Abe coming to power.
In August, major Japanese political journals such as Bungei Shunju and Chuo Koron held a debate on whether the next prime minister should continue the visits to Yasukuni or bow to China. Participants included Kato Koichi, a pro-China politician, and Makoto Koga, former LDP secretary-general and head of Nippon Izokukai, an association for the families of World War II war dead.
The way they presented their arguments was reminiscent of the debate Japan had at the end of the 19th century: Should Japan emulate the advanced nations of the West and "leave Asia" by dissociating itself from its neighbors, especially China and Korea? What the past and present debates have in common is that they both symbolized the rise of Japanese right-wing nationalism.
The past debate on whether Japan should "leave Asia" was initiated by Fukuzawa Yukichi, an advocate of imperialist expansion who was also the initiator of the theory of "breaking away from Asia and joining Europe." Fukuzawa came up with the theory during the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century because he was convinced that the reason Asian countries would lag behind the West was related to China's feudalism and conservatism.
Fukuzawa maintained that Japan needed to dissociate itself from other Asian nations and emulate the achievements of the West. To do so, he added, Japan must thoroughly distance itself from backward China ideologically and culturally and stop feeling sentimentally attached to the Chinese and Koreans. Following this line of thinking, Japan became the most aggressive and isolated Asian country in the beginning of the 20th century.
Controversy surrounding Yasukuni did not become a bone of contention until Koizumi came to power in 2001. Faced with China's rapid rise to the world stage, Koizumi proposed Japan should once again distance itself from the rest of Asia. He believed that China was nothing to be afraid of as long as Japan's and the US' foreign policies remained in step, and that the shortest route to communicating with Beijing was through Washington.