Tokyo Letter: Japan hosts G7 close to controversial shrine
Obama’s Hiroshima visit is one aspect of a complex history being considered
The Aioi Bridge in Hiroshima, Japan: US president Barack Obama is to attempt to reheat a pledge he made after he took office in 2009 to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Most critics, including survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, say he has little to show for the pledge. Photograph: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg
When the leaders of the world’s rich nations meet this week near Japan’s Ise Shrine for the G7 Summit, they’ll be encouraged to pause from putting on a show of strength against the fragile global economy to take in the breathtaking local scenery.
The venue is a string of islands along the Pacific coast, close to the shrine. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe chose Ise, he said, so the leaders could sample Japan’s “natural beauty, culture and traditions”.
Ise is also, not by coincidence, the spiritual heart of Shinto, once Japan’s state religion. A core element of the religion was the Japanese emperor’s divine status as a direct descendant of the sun god, Amaterasu.
Ise is considered home to the emperor’s ancestors; Amaterasu is enshrined in the inner sanctum. Abe is affiliated with the political arm of Shinto and helps lead a movement to shrug off the humiliations of the post-war years.
The American-led occupation of 1945-51 bequeathed a liberal constitution and education law which conservatives have long hated, the separation of religion and state, and a “pacifist” clause prohibiting Japan from a regional military role.
The occupation also ended Shinto’s status as a state religion and attempted to banish its influence from Japan’s public sphere, notably its emphasis on a pure racial identity linked to the emperor.
‘Key concerns and values’Mark Mullins
How much of this context will be acknowledged, or even completely understood by US president Barack Obama and the other leaders is not clear. America backs a stronger Japanese ally in Asia as a bulwark against China, though not Abe’s attempts to completely cast off the post-war order.
Most of the great minds in Ise will, in any case, be elsewhere. The G7 Summit, grouping the US, Japan, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and France, is already overshadowed by disagreements over how to kick-start economic growth.
Japan and Canada lead the argument for more government spending but Britain and Germany reportedly favour tighter fiscal policy.
Austerity supporters fear that more spending will spook markets by fuelling excess liquidity around the world and adding to the huge public debt overhanging many major economies. Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned of the “high nervousness” of financial markets at the G7 finance ministers’ meeting in Sendai, north-eastern Japan, last week.
The summit is likely to be dominated by these challenges, in addition to global terrorism, climate change, the refugee crisis, North Korea and the looming threat of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Most local media attention, meanwhile, is focused on a highly anticipated visit on Friday by Mr Obama to Hiroshima, obliterated by a nuclear bomb dropped from a US bomber in 1945. Film-maker Oliver Stone was among about 70 scholars and peace activists who wrote to Obama on Monday urging him to meet survivors of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Obama, fresh from his final G7 summit, will attempt to reheat a pledge he made after he took office in 2009, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Most critics, including survivors of the bombing, say he has little to show for the pledge.
By this time next year Obama will have vacated the Oval Office, so he is already looking to his legacy. He will want to come out of the summit with a clear growth path for the world economy.
As for the Japanese prime minister, a statesmanlike role beside Obama could create the tailwind for a summer double election, sealing his position as one of the nation’s longest-serving modern leaders.
With his approval ratings again rising, and the opposition in disarray, few are ruling that out. A populist push to condemn Chinese expansion in the East and South China Seas might also help.
Beijing reacted angrily to a statement by the G7 foreign ministers meeting in Hiroshima in April, opposing “any intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions” in the seas.
In Ise, the symbolism of the venue will be clear to Abe’s supporters even if not always to the rest of the world. As Mullins notes, Abe has already reportedly expressed his hope that the world’s leaders will encounter “Japanese spirituality” at this sacred site.
Whatever happens this week, that’s a political triumph for Japan’s leader.