Japan visits to war shrine anger China

Ministers attend event at monument that honours 14 army leaders convicted as war criminals

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering and cabinet ministers visited a controversial shrine for war dead today - the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two - prompting China to lodge a strong complaint with Tokyo and putting at risk tentative diplomatic overtures to improve ties.

Mr Abe was treading a fine line between trying not to inflame tensions with China and South Korea and appealing to his conservative supporters. But at least two cabinet ministers and dozens of lawmakers publicly paid their respects at Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

“I asked my special aide ... to make the offering on my behalf with a feeling of gratitude and respect for those who fought and gave their precious lives for their country,”Mr Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s office.

"As for when I might go to Yasukuni Shrine, or whether I will go or not, I will not say as this should not become a political or diplomatic issue," he said after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) aide conveyed the offering in the name of "Shinzo Abe, LDP leader."


Visits to the shrine by top politicians have outraged Beijing and Seoul in the past because the shrine honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, along with war dead.

China summoned the Japanese ambassador today to protest, the foreign ministry in Beijing said. The pilgrimages to Yasukuni, it said in a statement, “seriously harm the feelings of the people in China and other Asian victim countries”.

It denounced a visit by officials to the shrine in any form as “an intrinsic attempt to deny and beautify that history of invasion by the Japanese militarists”.

A retired Chinese general was blunter.

“Can you imagine what the world would think of Germany if they paid homage to Nazi boss Hitler?” retired Chinese Major General Luo Yuan, one of China’s most outspoken military figures, wrote in the influential tabloid the Global Times.

Both China and Korea suffered under Japanese rule, with parts of China occupied from 1930s and Korea colonised from 1910 to 1945.

Japanese conservatives say it is only natural to honour the war dead and deny doing so at Yasukuni glorifies the war. That leaves Mr Abe treading a fine line between trying to mend ties with neighbours and appealing to his conservative support base.

"I came as a Japanese citizen to pray here for those who sacrificed their lives," said Keiji Furuya, a minister whose portfolios include the national public safety commission, after paying his respects at the shrine in central Tokyo.

“Paying homage to the war dead is a purely domestic matter and it’s not for other countries to criticize us or intervene in these matters.”

Internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo also visited the shrine, and a large group of conservative lawmakers is expected to pay their respects, including a senior LDP executive.

Bitter memories of Japan’s past militarism run deep in China and South Korea. Despite close economic ties and recent calls by Mr Abe for a leaders’ summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Japan’s relations with its neighbours remain fraught.

A crowd, including pensioners and school children, entered the shrine complex as it opened at 6 am, some wearing dark suits and others in morning jogging outfits, walking quietly through the massive “torii” gate as cicadas buzzed in the trees.

"My father died during the war, so I come here every year to pray for him and for the people who sacrificed their lives for the country," said Mariko Matsuda, a 70-year-old pensioner.

“It’s a great shame that the prime minister Abe won’t visit the shrine today.”

Tokyo hoped that if Mr Abe stayed away, it could send a signal to China of his desire to ease tensions and help pave the way for a summit that Japan has been signalling it wants to hold.