Visit by Japanese prime minister Abe to war shrine angers neighbours

Fears visit could lead to worse regional tensions

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe  is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo yesterday. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo yesterday. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters


As territorial tensions simmer in Asia, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe outraged his country’s neighbours China and South Korea yesterday when he visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honours war criminals alongside those fallen in battle.

Japanese television showed Mr Abe’s motorcade as it made its way to the shrine, where 14 class A war criminals, convicted by an Allied tribunal after the second World War, are honoured among the 2.5 million war dead enshrined there.

Mr Abe, a conservative and nationalist who took office for a second term a year ago, emphasised how it was normal for a country’s leader to pay respect to those who died in war and insisted he did not intend to hurt feelings in neighbouring nations.

“There is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals, but I visited Yasukuni shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,” he told reporters after the visit.

Japan colonised Korea and occupied parts of China, often brutally, before and during the second World War and both China and South Korea believe Tokyo has failed to atone properly for wartime atrocities. Visits by Japanese politicians to the shrine regularly put strain on relations between Japan and its neighbours.

There are fears Mr Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, the first by a serving prime minister since 2006, could inflame passions and possibly lead to military skirmishes in a row over an uninhabited archipelago in the East China Seas.

The islands are known as the Diaoyu in China or the Senkakus in Japan, which are controlled by Tokyo but are also claimed by China.

Trade ties between China, the world’s second-biggest economy, and Japan, the third- biggest, have improved in the past few months, but tensions are rising after military face-offs over the islands in resource-rich waters. However, these tensions have increased in recent weeks and a visit to Yasukuni could act as a catalyst and spark military skirmishes between the two Asian giants.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said Mr Abe’s action had pushed Japan in an “extremely dangerous” direction and was “a major new political obstacle” to already strained relations. Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Mr Abe’s visit “whitewashes Japanese aggression and colonial rule, overthrows the international community’s trial of Japanese militarism and challenges the post-war international order.”

Mr Wang told Japan’s envoy to China, who was summoned to the ministry: “Japan must bear full responsibility for the serious political consequences.” He labelled the Yasukuni shrine “a spiritual tool and symbol” of Japanese aggression in World War Two.

A commentary in state-run news agency Xinhua went on: “Choosing a sensitive time to visit a highly controversial and notorious place, Abe knows perfectly what he is doing and the consequences. Instead of a pledge against war, as Abe has claimed, the visit is a calculated provocation to stoke further tension.”
In Korea, President Park Geun-hye has refused to meet Mr Abe due to what the Korea Times called “his unrepentant attitude” .

South Korea’s minister of culture, sports and tourism, Yoo Jinryong, labelled the visit “an anachronistic act” that “hurts not only the ties between South Korea and Japan but also fundamentally damages the stability and co-operation in Northeast Asia”. His briefing was broadcast live on TV.

Meanwhile, a statement released by the US embassy in Tokyo expressed disappointment “that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours.”

“The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbours will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past.”