Rebuilding bridges As the G7 gathers in Japan, religion, politics and the bomb will all help Shinzo Abe
NOT long after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan's surrender in the second world war, American soldiers reached one of the holiest shrines of the state religion, Shinto, at Ise in Mie prefecture on the main Japanese island of Honshu. When a guard tried to stop them trundling their Jeeps to the shrine over the 100-metre-long Uji bridge, made of precious cypress wood, he was rebuffed with a pistol. Any damage to the bridge would have been repaired anyway since, like the rest of the 1,300-year-old shrine, it is rebuilt once every 20 years. So, among the countless humiliations endured by a defeated nation, this was a petty one, now forgotten. It will be expiated on May 26th, when Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, is expected to use the bridge to welcome fellow leaders from the rich world's club, the G7, to their annual summit, on an island near the shrine.
It seems an odd site--remote, little-known abroad and holy to a religion disestablished after the war, with the constitution of 1947 decreeing that "no religious organisation shall receive any privileges from the state, nor exercise any political authority". Mie did not even compete for the privilege of hosting the summit, but was cajoled into doing so by Mr Abe's office. Yet for the prime minister's life mission of "escaping the post-war regime" by making his country strong and proud again, it is a subtle choice.
The summit will bring Mr Abe other political benefits, especially now that, on its margins, Barack Obama is to become the first serving American president to visit Hiroshima. The White House has made clear that Mr Obama will not apologise for the death and destruction inflicted on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 and, three days later, on Nagasaki. But a poll suggests that nine-tenths of Japanese welcome his visit. For the left, it is a reminder of the awfulness of war and the importance of the pacifist provisions in the constitution. For many on the right, it recognises Japan's victimhood and the unfairness of a world which demands apologies for its wartime crimes. The latest, an agreement with South Korea in December over the handling of the cases of so-called "comfort women"--sex slaves for the Japanese army--was probably what allowed Mr Obama's visit. Nevertheless, whatever he does in Hiroshima, he will upset China--which fears another attempt to whitewash Japan's history--and quite a few Americans, too. (The proportion of Americans who think the bombing justified because it ended the war has fallen from 85% in 1945 to 56% last year, but that is still a majority.) Later this year Mr Abe may visit Pearl Harbour, site of the infamous surprise attack on Hawaii that brought America into the war.
Compared with these wartime commemorations, the events at the shrine at Ise will be less controversial. But the nationalists who form a big part of Mr Abe's support base will applaud. Mr Obama may not perform the rituals expected of less-exalted worshippers: purifying hands and mouth with water from a wooden ladle dipped in a stone trough; bowing deeply, clapping and praying before the main sanctuary, the divine palace of Amaterasu, sun goddess and mythical ancestor to Japan's emperors. Even so, the G7 will have given an international badge of respectability to Shinto, which Japan's pre-war politicians had forged into a tool of aggressive imperialism. Beginning the summit at Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honours Japan's war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals, would be unthinkable. Even Mr Abe stays away these days, having provoked regional fury by going there in December 2013.
Mr Abe shows no deep interest in Shinto itself, says a scholar at the university in Tokyo where future Shinto priests study. But he is a member of Shinto Seiji Renmei, the religion's powerful political wing, which campaigns to restore much of the nation's pre-war religious, social and political order. In 2013 Mr Abe took part in the ancient ceremony marking the rebuilding of Ise, only the second prime minister ever to do so. Taking nine cabinet ministers with him, he turned a religious rite into a political statement.
In this sense the Ise summit fits into Mr Abe's long-term nationalist project, which has already seen his government increase the defence budget, relax a ban on weapons exports and reinterpret the constitution to allow Japan to take part in collective self-defence. America has welcomed all this: Japan is becoming a more formidable ally at a time of shared anxiety about Chinese ambitions in Asia. So Mr Obama may not be too worried if the summit, and his own visit to Hiroshima, bring Mr Abe political benefits. Even in advance, the prime minister's approval ratings have risen above 50% for the first time in months.
The summit may also give Mr Abe cover for going back on his commitment to raise Japan's consumption tax from 8% to 10% in April next year. A statement from world leaders that, with the world economy still fragile, fiscal stimulus is the order of the day might provide an excuse for deferring a tax hike. Seeking voters' approval for such a volte-face might, in turn, be a pretext to call a snap election for the lower house of the Diet, or parliament, in July, along with one scheduled for the upper house. Such a "double election" has been the subject of fevered speculation. A statesmanlike image cultivated at the summit might encourage Mr Abe to take advantage of the opposition's present disarray.
The problem for America in dealing with Mr Abe, however, is that it is impossible to separate those of his policies it likes from the broader nationalist agenda of some of his unappealing fans. That includes a revisionist view of history, in which Japan's only important mistake in the second world war was to lose it; a rejection of the American-imposed constitution and its renunciation of war; and perhaps a revival of Shinto as a state religion. In helping Mr Abe, America is unintentionally also boosting forces that want to take Japan in a direction feared by many around the region, and indeed in the country itself.