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nathan vanderklippe

Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Anne Frank House represents a stark irony for critics of his views on the Second World War.CRIS TOALA OLIVARES/Reuters

The Yasukuni Shrine occupies a pretty corner of downtown Tokyo, a short stroll from the moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace. The grounds, with a koi pond and the cherry tree used to mark the city's famed blossom season, are the quiet opposite of the loud role Yasukuni has played in an increasingly tense dispute between Japan and its neighbours. Deified here are 2.5-million soldiers, among them leaders who dispatched Japanese soldiers onto neighbouring soils, where horrifying atrocities were committed.

That was all supposed to be in the past, left long behind by a country with a pacifist constitution and a heavy dependence on the U.S. for its modern defence. But in late December, under the glare of live television coverage, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walked through Yasukuni, a place that has also drawn visits from neo-Nazis and ultra right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

That is jarring company to keep, but Mr. Abe represents a fierce kind of nationalism that has long simmered in Japan, although not often expressed at such a high level. His shrine visit has echoed viciously across Asia for nearly three months now, sparking a nasty fight with China and sharp criticism from other neighbours. They see the Yasukuni visit as a sign that Japan, with Mr. Abe at its helm, is reverting to something ugly.

This week, he will attempt to soothe at least some of that ill will, with plans to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands. On Sunday, he also visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, walking through a monument to Second World War horror – a jarring irony to his critics, who see him as overseeing a concerted attempt to minimize Japan's own wartime horrors.

Mr. Abe is placing new money into the country's military, with spending up 2.8 per cent in the 2014 fiscal year (although mostly for wage increases). His government has worked to rewrite history textbooks; late last fall, advisers to the Education Ministry proposed rejecting school texts that fail to adopt a patriotic tone. He has sought to "reinterpret" the country's constitution to allow a more assertive military – or, failing that, to simply rewrite the country's chief political document, which has never been amended since its adoption under U.S. occupation in 1947. He has, perhaps most provocatively of all, warned that even strong economic allies – Germany and Britain – have in the past gone to war, calling the current tension between China and Japan a "similar situation" to prewar Europe.

"He's the most ideological prime minster Japan has had in the postwar period. Full-stop. There's nobody even close," said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "And so it's not surprising at all that he's made revising history education and Yasukuni Shrine visits part of his agenda. That is who he is."

Indeed, the philosophies underpinning Yasukuni, which minimize Japan's war wrongs and cast it as a victim that owes no apologies, in many ways underpin Mr. Abe. He is not alone. A growing Japanese taste for right-wing books, magazines and movies suggests a mounting sympathy Mr. Abe's ideology. Those close to the Prime Minister argue for Japan's right to adopt a more assertive tone, even if that includes reviving armed forces that once brought much bloodshed to the region.

"Any country must have a military. A nation without the military, that's a very liberal idea. It's not the real world," said Hisahiko Okazaki, a former Japanese ambassador and long-time political adviser who has been called Mr. Abe's "brain."

"We have become a hopelessly pacifist nation. So it's a normalization, not a remilitarization," Mr. Okazaki said. He believes going to Yasukuni has done Mr. Abe more harm than good – international relations were already sour before the visit. At home, the Prime Minister's approval ratings are up.

The Japanese government, for its part, has argued that "there is no possibility that Japan will change course of being a pacifist country," according to Koichi Mizushima, deputy press secretary for Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Our foreign policy has not changed, and will not change at all." Gerry Curtis, a respected Japan expert at Columbia University in New York, added: "The idea that [Mr. Abe] seeks to recreate the kind of Japan that was militaristic and aggressive and colonized Korea and so on – I think it's total nonsense," he said.

But, Prof. Curtis said, Mr. Abe "has a view of history that makes Chinese and Koreans particularly angry, and for good reason."

That view is encapsulated at Yasukuni, whose shrine-run museum, Yushukan, is filled with edited history, actively devoted to celebrating Japanese soldiers by diminishing the atrocities they committed against their neighbours over the past century. Outside Japan, the Japanese campaign against Nanjing is widely remembered as amongst the ugliest in modern military history, with tens of thousands of Chinese women raped and at least 100,000 killed. At Yushukan, a paragraph-length description of "The Nanking Incident" merely says Japanese solders were told "to maintain strict military disciplines [sic] and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished."

Elsewhere, a large display honours 14 wartime leaders convicted as "Class A" war criminals. Guilty of "crimes against peace," they are made gods at Yasukuni. Their pictures are displayed alongside a description of an Indian judge who questioned the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, and the guilt of those who planned and carried out Japan's military campaigns.

Mr. Abe's own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was once charged with war crimes, although he was never convicted. Mr. Kishi was part of the cabinet that ordered the Pearl Harbor attacks; he later ardently opposed the country's pacifist constitution.

"Abe, I think, feels a familial obligation to defend the honour of his grandfather, who he didn't think was an evil man. And I think that has a lot to do with his view of history," said Mr. Curtis.

Mr. Okazaki sees it differently. Mr. Abe is less interested in his family history, he says, than "the honour of Japan."

Yet Mr. Abe also faces a certain irony: if he is to defend Japan's honour, it's more likely to be through the Nikkei than Yasukuni. He has sought to restart the long-moribund Japanese economy by drenching markets with money in hopes of devaluing the yen and sparking growth. Even to Mr. Okazaki, Mr. Abe's will be judged primarily on his ability to manage that process. Economic failure means political failure. But economic success?

"If the economy goes smoothly, I think he will be alright," Mr. Okazaki said. "People will support him. Historical issues won't matter."