After all, Jin Matsubara, Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, and Minister for the Abduction Issue, is about as far to the right of the Japanese political spectrum as you can go without actually jumping on a khaki-colored van and parading back and forth in front of the South Korean embassy, loud enough to annoy the occupants but not so loud that the Metropolitan Police Department, nested in the broader jurisdiction of the National Public Safety Commission, would have to take action, so I should have expected that he would be the one to disregard the Prime Minister’s (Chief Cabinet Secretary’s) request and pay his respects to the fallen soldiers on August 15, the day of unconditional surrender, at the Yasukuni Shrine. But I didn’t, because…I guess because I did not think that this sort of thing was going to be a big deal. After all, cabinet members had been visiting Yasukuni on August 15 up until the end of the Aso administration without incident.
Here is something useful to remember. The deal with the Chinese authorities is that the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Minister of Defense, and the Chief Cabinet Secretary have to stay away from Yasukuni as long as the Class A war criminals remain enshrined there, but anything else would not cause a diplomatic contretemps. This has been a workable compromise, one that even Abe Shinzo respected when he became prime minister (though he now reportedly says that he should have. Yeah, sure). And of course there was no way that South Korea could have negotiated anything more, so there things stand, even today.
The Chinese leadership, in a delicate period of transition amid economic concerns that, if managed poorly, will significantly erode the political legitimacy of the Communist Party, has an overarching interest in avoiding immediate trouble with its neighbors (and of course the United Sates), although there is likely to be intermittent outbursts of provocative rhetoric and possibly action from quarters—PLA, notably—jockeying for power, resources, and prestige throughout the drawn-out transitory process. By contrast, South Korea’s highly pluralist political leadership, also approaching transition, has an inherent interest in competing with each other to appeal to an electorate, highly invested in imposing national myths on the Japanese body politic. This is a recipe for escalation. Sure enough, the initial response, according to this Kyodo wire, has been fast and furious. More will follow if Yuichiro Hata, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and Minister for Ocean Policy, makes good on his words and pays a visit later in the day.
Thus, another small nail in the coffin or, rather, time capsule—hopefully of short (by which I mean a couple of years’) duration—of the bilateral political relationship.