Japanese Premier Visits Contentious War Shrine
By Hiroko Tabuchi, NY Times, December 26, 2013
TOKYO—Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan visited a contentious Tokyo war shrine early on Thursday, provoking swift condemnation from China and South Korea, both victims of Japan’s wartime aggression.
Wearing formal attire and followed by news media helicopters that broadcast his visit live on television, Mr. Abe led a group of government officials into the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo to pay his respects. Television cameras were not allowed into the inner shrine.
Mr. Abe’s visit to the shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including Class A war criminals from the World War II era, was the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi paid his respects there in 2006.
Among those honored by the shrine, of Japan’s native Shinto religion, are several who were executed as war criminals after World War II. Past visits by Japanese politicians have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered greatly under Japan’s empire-building efforts in the early 20th century.
Japanese prime ministers had stayed away from the shrine in recent years as the country sought to improve relations with China and South Korea.
Mr. Abe himself did not visit the shrine during his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, but he has since expressed regret for that.
Speaking to reporters after his brief visit, Mr. Abe expressed frustration that the shrine still provoked such controversy. He said that he had paid his respects not just to those who gave their lives serving Japan, but to fallen soldiers around the world.
He added that it was normal for any national leader to honor the war dead, and that he had prayed for peace.
"Japan must never wage war again," Mr. Abe said. "This is my conviction based on severe remorse for the past. It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people."
But his visit came at a tense time. Japan is already involved in a standoff with China over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and over a new air defense identification zone announced by China that includes airspace over the disputed islands. It is also embroiled in a dispute with South Korea over separate islets.
Mr. Abe has been particularly scrutinized because he is known for his conservative views on Japanese history, and what his supporters describe as a personal desire to revise an overly negative portrayal of Japan’s actions during the war. He has questioned some accounts of Japan’s wartime conduct, including whether the military forced women across Asia into sexual servitude.
He has also sought to bolster Japan’s military standing, increasing the country’s military spending for the first time in a decade and adopting a new defense plan that calls for the purchase of drones and amphibious assault vehicles to counter China’s rapid military buildup in the region. Mr. Abe has long said that Japan must ultimately revise its pacifist Constitution to allow for a fully developed military instead of a purely defensive force.
Local news reports have said that some of his closest aides advised Mr. Abe to stay away from the shrine so he could focus on what has been the defining policy of his administration so far: reviving Japan’s economy. American officials had also expressed concern that historical issues may isolate Japan, the United States’ largest Asian ally, at a time when Washington faces a more assertive China and a nuclear North Korea.
Still, since he took office exactly a year ago, Mr. Abe has sent offerings to the shrine, and several members of his cabinet have paid visits. Some of his supporters had said it was just a matter of time before the prime minister himself visited the shrine, especially as hopes for improved relations with either China or South Korea appeared slim anyway. Though Mr. Abe had never visited the shrine as prime minister before Thursday, he was a regular visitor as a lawmaker of the Liberal Democratic Party and most recently as opposition leader last year.
China’s reaction to Mr. Abe’s visiting the shrine was swift.
"The Chinese government expresses its strong indignation that Japanese leaders brutally trample the feelings of the Chinese and other Asian peoples victimized in wars," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We solemnly urged the Japanese side to abide by the commitment to reflecting on its history of aggression, taking measures to correct its errors, eliminating its adverse effects, and taking concrete actions to win over the trusts of its Asian neighbors and the international community."
South Korea also condemned Mr. Abe’s visit to the shrine. “Our government cannot help but deplore and express anger over the fact that Prime Minister Abe ignored the concerns and warnings of the neighboring countries and the world community and paid respect at the Yasukuni shrine, which glorifies Japan’s colonial rule and war of aggression,” Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong said in a statement.
The United States also criticized Mr. Abe’s visit.
"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 neighbors," the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a statement Thursday.