Shinzo Abe’s appointment this week as Japanese prime minister has been welcomed in Asian capitals as the possible dawn of a new era of co-operation between Japan and China, the two economic giants and traditional rivals of east Asia.
Mr Abe, the optimists point out, is only 52. He is the youngest Japanese prime minister since the second world war and the first to be born after it. Above all, he is a change from his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who is credited with reviving the Japanese economy but blamed for alienating China and South Korea by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo – a provocation to Japan’s wartime victims because it commemorates war criminals as well as nearly 2.5m other soldiers.
The unanswered question is whether Mr Abe will play the role assigned to him by the optimists. The hope about his intentions – he has pragmatically refused to say whether he will visit Yasukuni as prime minister and is working towards an early summit meeting with China – is matched by lingering fear about his record as an outspoken Japanese nationalist.
Being young and of the postwar generation does not necessarily mean being a liberal peacenik. Mr Abe, who describes himself as “a politician who fights”, has chosen a cabinet dominated by conservatives and kept the hawkish Taro Aso in his previous post as foreign minister. Mr Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was among those jailed as war criminals, although he was never tried and went on to become prime minister in 1957.
Yet there are encouraging signs that Japan may be ready for a rapprochement with China that would reflect the growing interdependence of the two economies and prove the optimists right.
Beijing has for the past few years used the Yasukuni issue as a blunt diplomatic weapon with which to beat Tokyo and remind the world of Japanese aggression and cruelty in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese nationalists have predictably bristled at Chinese criticism and loudly asserted their rightwing views, strengthening suspicions abroad that the Japanese as a whole are irredeemably nationalist and unrepentant about the war.
The reality is different. It is not only foreigners who think it is wrong to pay homage to war criminals or who criticise the distorted view of history at the Yushukan war museum inside the Yasukuni compound (among other outrages, it describes the 1937-1938 Nanjing massacre in China as an “incident” and makes no reference to the slaughter of civilians). Many Japanese agree.
Yukio Okamoto, a consultant and former adviser to Mr Koizumi who calls himself “a centrist conservative, a patriot but not a nationalist”, observes that many Japanese are opposed to official visits to Yasukuni and even those who do approve are critical of the museum.
“Not one of the 1,000 people I’ve spoken to agrees with the view of the museum,” Mr Okamoto told a recent Asia Society meeting in Hong Kong. “It’s a very peculiar place.”
A report this month from the Pew Global Attitudes Project predictably found that the majority of Chinese and Japanese viewed each other with suspicion and hostility. It also found that four-fifths of Chinese believed Japan had not apologised enough for its actions in the second world war.
Less obvious and more revealing was the finding that 44 per cent of Japanese also thought Japan had not made sufficient apologies, compared with 40 per cent who said it had.
Much is at stake in the flurry of diplomatic activity between Beijing and Tokyo. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner and Japan is one of the biggest foreign investors in China, with 32,000 Japanese companies accounting for more than 9m Chinese jobs. The two countries depend heavily on imported energy and raw materials, are in dispute over territorial boundaries in the East China Sea and have a common interest in maintaining regional security with the help of the US. As recently as April last year, anti-Japanese riots in China exposed the fragility of one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.
In Japan, at least, signs of change are in the air. Mr Abe is among the rightwingers who favour the promotion of patriotism in Japanese schools but, in a surprise judgment in favour of liberals last week, a Tokyo court ruled that Japanese teachers do not have to sing the national anthem or stand to attention before the rising sun flag. Several had been fired and hundreds more punished for disobeying a 2003 directive from Tokyo’s nationalist-led metropolitan government.
As for Yasukuni, it is significant that Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor-in-chief of the conservative Yomiuri newspaper – the world’s best-selling daily with a circulation of 10m – has joined the chorus of Japanese commentators calling on the country’s politicians to pay their respects to the war dead somewhere other than the Yasukuni shrine.
Only by abandoning Yasukuni will Japanese leaders be able to tell if China is serious about improving the relationship or whether it will simply find another way of keeping Japan on the diplomatic defensive over its war record.
The inescapable conclusion is that Japanese prime ministers should break with the past and refuse to visit Yasukuni. With his impeccable nationalist credentials, Mr Abe is the right man to make the change.