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Japan's Abe bets US alliance, ratings can weather controversial visit to war shrine

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a shrine for war dead outraged China and South Korea, and also upset Washington and his government coalition partner — but he appears confident the alliances and his popularity will not be affected.

On Thursday, Abe became the first Japanese premier in seven years to pay his respects at Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal after World War Two are honored along with those who died in battle.

The shrine is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression. Abe, however, is a staunch conservative and the pilgrimage is part of his mission to recast Japan's wartime past in a less apologetic light and revive national pride.

The visit predictably sparked outrage in China and South Korea, countries with which Japan's ties were already strained by disputes over isles and bitter wartime memories.

It also prompted a rare public expression of “disappointment” from the United States and a statement of regret from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) partner, the more dovish New Komeito party.

Those familiar with Abe's thinking said the prime minister, who took office a year ago for a second term promising to revive a “strong Japan,” was well aware of the risks.

“The Americans are dissatisfied? Too bad. Will they still be our ally? Yes,” said one Japanese diplomatic source familiar with Abe's thinking. “The economy, income, social welfare — these are the concerns of the Japanese people. Foreign policy probably won't have a decisive impact on the opinion polls.”

Abe, although hailing from the most conservative wing of the LDP, avoided going to Yasukuni during his first 2006-2007 term in order to improve ties with China. Relations with Beijing had been badly hurt, in part, by annual visits to the shrine by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

At first Abe stuck to a similar course in hopes of holding a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As far back as the summer, however, aides said Abe might visit the shrine if there was no breakthrough in ties.

“For the prime minister, improving ties with China is a matter of national interest, so if he can succeed in that, he can hold back,” an aide to Abe said in August. “If it looks as if things are not improving, he will go.”

But the chill in ties with China, frayed by a dispute over East China Sea isles claimed by both nations, deepened after Beijing announced an air defense zone last month, including air space over the disputed land.

“This time, China was not willing to make a deal on the Senkaku,” the diplomatic source said, using the Japanese name for the isles known as the Diaoyu in China.

Critics said Abe had now ensured the chill would persist.

“I think it was a seriously counter-productive and irresponsible move and put regional relations in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.

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