The Abe-Aso bait and switch

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The Abe-Aso bait and switch

“What’s going on here? I gave you special consideration and arranged a meeting with the vice president. How could you stab me in the back?” A Japanese official received a fierce complaint from Michael Donilon, counselor to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Washington DC in late April.

Earlier in the month, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso attended the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in the city, and had requested a meeting with Biden. At first he was turned down, but Donilon took Aso’s experience as prime minister of his country into consideration and arranged the sit-down. At the meeting, Biden asked Aso to respect relations with Korea and China.

However, Aso upset Biden by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine straight from Narita International Airport upon returning from his U.S. visit, immediately after the meeting. For Japan’s neighbors in the region and many others, the shrine is a symbol of Japan’s violent, imperial past.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was the one who had to face Biden’s fury. I called him and asked what had happened. Mr. Suga wasn’t aware of the trip initially, but later confirmed that he found out Aso had tipped Prime Minister Shinzo Abe off about his visit to the shrine in advance.

Abe knew Aso’s Yasukuni shrine visit was going to happen but didn’t inform Suga, one of his closest aides. Even though Abe is the prime minister and Aso is the deputy prime minister, Abe can’t give orders to Aso that easily. A sensitive and subtle power dynamic runs between the two. As such, it seems like Abe went out of his way for Aso by keeping Suga - a moderate figure - in the dark, so that he wouldn’t discourage Aso’s shrine visit.

An important point of attention in Korea-Japan relations after the Japanese upper house election on Sunday is the upcoming Yasukuni Shrine visit around Aug. 15. We need to watch out for the Abe-Aso duo.

Abe is under pressure from the United States. Last week, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell and vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Michael Green visited Japan and openly and repeatedly warned key Japanese officials “not to provoke Korea.” Moreover, Tokyo is working to arrange U.S. President Barack Obama’s state visit to Japan this fall. A visit to the shrine a month before Obama’s visit could create huge problems. As a result, Washington is keeping Abe tied up.

So here, the front man is Aso. Abe may look on as Aso visits Yasukuni and he himself stays away. This would be a recurrence of what happened in April.

One positive aspect about the fact that Aso is taking the trips to the shrine is that Aso has been visiting the Yasukuni shrine every year since his first visit on April 28, 1952, when he was in sixth grade. It was the day when the San Francisco Peace Treaty went into effect. Aso’s maternal grandfather, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, signed the treaty on Japan’s behalf. Shigeru took Aso out of school early that day and brought him to Yasukuni, telling him it was the day that Japan gained independence. Every year, Aso visits the shrine around that time, and this year was no exception.

But no matter what happens, August will be an uncomfortable month as we closely watch the Abe-Aso duo and how they handle the Yasukuni issue.

*The author is the Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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