I still didn’t think that he would do it, but he did. I would have advised him not to, but that’s why I’m not his advisor (…well, one of the reasons; but I digress). There’s plenty to talk about here around the meaning of it all, but I’m unlikely to have something meaningful to add to what is going to be another step in the interminable debate around the issue. Instead, let me offer a set of predictions, some more verifiable than others.
1. This bodes well for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and the Futenma Air Base closing. If anyone in the Abe administration had any thoughts of letting down the Obama administration on either of these, well, forget about it. In fact, the very recent progress on the transfer of the bulk of the Futenma operations to Nago, one of the few places in Okinawa where the U.S. military’s relationship with the local community is on the whole benign, must have been one of the key factors that enabled Abe to decide to pay his respects to the fallen soldiers (and, as he volunteered at the on-site press conference, all the people worldwide who lost their lives as the result of wars, whom he paid respects to at the Yasukuni shrine-within-shrine dedicated to that purpose).
2. The verbal backlash in China, South Korea, and the New York Times will be ferocious. Physical? Not so much, since the Chinese authorities will make sure that public protests are orderly, drawing the line at flag-burning. I would be surprised, though, if the Chinese vessels currently lurking in the adjacent waters of the Senkaku Islands do not venture into the territorial waters in the coming days. Economic interests are a different story. Japanese companies doing business in China will be hit. There will be what amounts to an informal boycott of Japan-branded consumer products, and business the national and local governments as well state-owned companies will be harder to secure than it already is. All in all, the economic backlash will be smaller than it was in the wake of the 2011 (fishing boat-Coast Guard vessel collision) and 2012 (Senkaku purchase) events.
3. The Abe cabinet will rise in the polls as a consequence. Remember, a majority of the Japanese public support prime minister visits in principle, and there’s usually a rally-around-the-leader effect that draws in some opponents in the face of controversial but decisive action.
4. I am a (tad) less pessimistic about prospects for meaningful reform on agriculture, the labor market, and (dare I say it?) the social safety net in the next, June 2014, batch of long-term growth policy measures. But Abe has to really put his shoulders to the wheel on that one, and that’s not a given.
5. Abe will visit once more as prime minister, at the end of his tenure. What he does in between will depend very much on what transpires on the international front. My point here is that he has done what he feels he has to do.
6. (sort of) Newspaper extras are usually reserved for calamities (wars, gargantuan earthquakes), celebrations (imperial weddings, capturing the Olympic Games), and other truly momentous events. Sankei Shimbun obviously thinks that this is one of them; surely no ambiguity as to which category it belongs. But will other dailies follow suit? I don’t think so.