This state of affairs is the accumulation of nearly ten months in frosty, if not covertly hostile China-Japan relations. For Japan to now categorically state that it does not trust China to abide by international regulations, and that China was risking conflict by engaging in provocative acts near the Senkaku Islands (J), means that an impasse has been reached that neither the Abe government nor the CCP will be able to resolve without concessions being made by both sides. Considering that Xi Jinping has staked his reputation on being seen as ‘decisive’ and a strong ruler, any diplomatic move towards the Abe government would be seen domestically as capitulation to a right-wing, nationalistic Japan. While PM Abe may offer to engage in talks with the CCP leadership, he has no desire to be seen as conciliatory towards China, especially given the intrusion by Chinese government vessels into seas surrounding the Senkaku Islands.
A survey released by the Pew Research Centre on Thursday last week did not give one cause for optimism that the current situation will be resolved anytime soon. PM Abe currently enjoys high levels of popular support (for a Japanese prime minister), in part driven by his series of economic measures, but also a reflection of his own ability to craft an image of being a ‘reformer’. Moreover, while a majority of Japanese still oppose constitutional revision (56%), the number of those in favour of undertaking revision has risen to 36%, admittedly only a 5% increase over 2008 results, but enough to raise debate about whether constitutional reform will be part of the Abe government’s agenda post-July 21. More worryingly, 90% of those Chinese respondents to the survey stated that they did not have a positive view of Japan, a figure in keeping with previous Japanese government surveys of Japanese public opinion towards China (J), thereby confirming a trend that shows no signs of abating. For their part, 77% of South Koreans said that they too did not hold positive views of Japan, again an indication that regional relations are not about to undergo a period of détente.
Such attitudes inevitably play a part in influencing domestic political sentiment towards participating in the annual visit to Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to Japan’s war dead. In his first term as PM, Abe Shinzo astutely avoided antagonising either China or South Korea by participating as a public figure in the event, although this did not prevent him attending as a private citizen or subsequently attending as a member of the opposition. On Monday, Komeito Representative Yamaguchi Natsuo mentioned during a public appearance in Nagoya that the government was considering its position for August 15th*, although he added that the government was planning to send a delegation of younger politicians to China following the House of Councillors election (J). This implies two things – either the government is planning to have its representatives visit Yasukuni Shrine and so wants its younger members to deliver the message, thereby taking heat off more senior party members; or that the government is not planning to conduct an official visit to Yasukuni Shrine, and proof of the sincerity of the Abe government will be conveyed by the younger party members who, after all, represent the future of the party.
It is of course possible that a third option exists – that PM Abe does seek dialogue with China’s leaders, but he won’t be the one doing the talking. PM Abe has previously stated that he is willing to talk although he won’t do so on terms set by the CCP(J), hence sending younger parliamentarians in his stead may be one way for PM Abe to canvas the CCP leadership’s thoughts without appearing to capitulate to CCP demands.
In the meantime Japan’s House of Councillor members have been out spruiking their respective platforms from street corners, in front of railway stations, from the back seat of cars (a method that has always struck me as being somewhat counter-productive, given that most voters don’t want to have election slogans blasted via loudspeakers into their living rooms at ten in the morning. It might produce more protest votes than supporters) in an effort to up their public profiles. The House of Councillors election for the 21st is also the first which has allowed politicians to promote themselves on the internet, although the manner in which this occurs is still quite limited (as outlined here in Japanese. Not only this, internet canvassing has yet to grab the populace’s attention, as this Sankei article states). Nonetheless, voters (or at least those voters who make use of Twitter) have voiced concerns regarding nuclear energy, constitutional revision, and participation in the TPP (these being the three most discussed policy topics on Twitter - J), while respondents to this Asahi poll (released on July 7 - J) put the economy, employment, and social welfare at the top of their list, a result that was similar to an earlier poll conducted by the Nikkei Shimbun (J).
While one could suggest that the result of the Twitter survey is incompatible to the newspaper surveys given that the Twitter survey was not an exercise in gathering voter opinions on specific topics, the level of interest among Twitter users (who are, demographically, younger than their newspaper counterparts) in issues that have not been canvassed in great depth by candidates or sitting members gives pause for thought as to whether this is a generational gap in priorities, or whether it reflects the editorial position of the news outlets that reported such news.
*As at the time of writing, Minister for Bureaucratic Reform Inada Tomomi has offered up a ceremonial lantern to Yasukuni Shrine, citing the reasons for doing so as being a ‘sign of respect for those that gave their lives’. Not a move likely to reassure Japan’s neighbours, but not out of character for members of the LDP, and certainly not Inada, who participated in a similar pilgrimage to Yasukuni in April this year - J. Although I have no data on this issue, I would be interested to know if female members of the LDP actually express far more strident nationalistic/patriotic views than their male counterparts. If so, why do they hold such views, and is it an attempt to compensate for their perceived femininity in an overwhelmingly male party apparatus, or a reflection of their individual upbringing?