Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Thursday visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine to pay respect to the nation’s war dead in a move condemned by both China and South Korea, which accused him of glorifying the country’s militaristic past.
While Seoul blasted the visit as “anachronistic,” China summoned Tokyo’s ambassador and the United States declared itself disappointed, saying the act committed by its ally would worsen tensions with Japan’s neighbours.
The shrine is popularly believed to be the repository of around 2.5 million souls of Japan’s war dead, most of them common soldiers, but also including convicted class A war criminals.
The visit came exactly 12 months after Abe took power, a period in which he has formally met neither China’s President Xi Jinping nor Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye.
It was also the first visit by a sitting Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went to mark the end of World War II in 2006.
Visits to the shrine by Japanese politicians have long been a point of friction with China and South Korea because of Japan’s brutal aggression during the war.
Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul are already strained by territorial rows and disputes stemming from Japan’s wartime occupation of large parts of China and its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Abe insisted that his visit, which comes days after he caused consternation by giving Japan’s military its second consecutive annual budget bump, was a pledge against war and not aimed at hurting feelings in China or South Korea.
Abe said criticism that Yasukuni visits are an act of worshipping war criminals is based on a misunderstanding, and that he believes Japan must never wage war again.
“Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue,” he said. “It is not my intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.”
The foreign ministry in Tokyo said it wanted to stress Abe “visited Yasukuni Shrine in a purely personal capacity (and)... not... to pay homage to war criminals”.
But Beijing and Seoul, both victims of Japan’s 20th century aggression, said no such distinction exists.
“We can’t help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine... despite concerns and warnings by neighbouring countries,” Seoul’s Culture Minister Yoo Jin-Ryong told reporters.
“The visit... is anachronistic behaviour that fundamentally damages not only relations between the South and Japan but also stability and cooperation in Northeast Asia.”
China calls visit ‘unacceptable’
China was first to rebuke the visit, immediately summoning Japan’s ambassador to Beijing to deliver a “strong protest and severe reprimand”.
“The essence of Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan’s history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
Qin’s statement came after a Chinese foreign ministry official condemned Abe’s visit as “absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people”.
In a statement posted on a verified ministry microblog, Luo Zhaohui, the director-general of the ministry’s department of Asian affairs, said Japan “must bear the consequences arising from this”.
The US reacted by slapping its chief ally on the wrists.
“Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that
Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours,” Washington said in a statement.
Although Abe did not visit the shrine during his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, he later said he felt “extremely remorseful” for that.
Abe’s forthright views on history—he has previously questioned the definition of “invade” in relation to Japan’s military adventurism last century—have raised fears over the direction he wants to take the officially pacifist country.
He has spoken repeatedly of his desire to tweak the US-imposed constitution, which limits the functions of the military, and has been on a drive in recent weeks to broaden the definition of their role to allow for “collective self-defence”, which would allow Japanese troops to come to the aid of allies.
Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said the visit was “an act of folly” that was certain to make a bad situation worse.
“It is perfectly possible his visit will fuel worries in Washington over a possible rise of militarism and a shift to the right in Japan,” he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2013-12-26