China criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for making a donation today to a Tokyo shrine on the 69th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, even as he seeks a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Visits by three members of Abe’s cabinet to Yasukuni shrine, which is seen by many as a symbol of Japan’s past aggression in Asia, also sparked censure in a statement issued by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. Fourteen Class-A war criminals are honored at the shrine, along with millions of war dead.
Abe hasn’t met Xi since taking office in December 2012 as ties between Asia’s two largest economies frayed over territorial and historical issues. Japan’s relations with South Korea have also been chilly, amid a separate territorial dispute and disagreement over whether Japan has atoned sufficiently for its military’s past abuse of so-called comfort women.
“Their acts once again demonstrate the Japanese government’s wrongful attitude toward historical issues,” Hua said in the statement. “We solemnly urge the Japanese side to deal with relevant issues properly in a responsible manner, and win back the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community with concrete actions.”
The foreign ministers of China and Japan met in Myanmar on Aug. 10, the first such meeting since Abe came to power, in a sign of progress toward a summit that the Japanese prime minister said he’d welcome at a regional economic forum in Beijing in November.
Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Koichi Hagiuda told reporters at Yasukuni that he delivered a donation to the shrine from Abe. While giving no reason for avoiding the shrine, Abe told Hagiuda to pledge eternal peace, the lawmaker said. After his December visit to Yasukuni, Abe stated that he went to honor the dead and did not intend to offend other countries.
National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya and Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo visited today, as they did last year. Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada also paid her respects, Kyodo news said. Shindo told reporters he made the visit with a feeling that war should never happen again.
Abe’s younger brother, vice foreign minister Nobuo Kishi, was among more than 80 lawmakers who visited the shrine as a group today, upper house member Toshiei Mizuochi told reporters.
Further straining ties, China and Japan are at odds over the sovereignty of a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. Ships from both sides have been tailing one another around the islands since Japan bought three of them from a private landowner in September 2012.
Dong Wang, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University, is pessimistic that Japan will take a “clear and correct” position on historical issues as Abe is a “staunch ultra-nationalist.”
“The 15th of August anniversary is a very important time, a hallmark for us to observe and to watch and assess which direction Abe wants to take,” Wang said. The best we can hope for is a short, informal meeting between Xi and Abe, though this depends on Abe’s actions, he said.
The neighbors have economic motives for trying to improve ties, said Liang Yunxiang, professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, with total shipments between the countries last year reaching $343 billion.
“China’s economy is not that good, and if it continues to slow not only Japan will suffer but China will too,” Liang said. “And now Chinese diplomacy has some problems, including tense relations with Southeast Asian countries. So they want to improve the foreign affairs environment.”
South Korea shares China’s anger with Japan over what it regards as a failure to sufficiently atone for wartime actions such as the military’s sexual abuse of women. Japan and South Korea are also embroiled in a dispute over a set of islands in the Sea of Japan.
In a televised speech today to commemorate the end of Japan’s 35-year occupation, South Korean President Park Geun Hye said Japan must try to heal past scars, urging “forward-looking steps on sex slaves” while the remaining survivors are still alive.
South Korea’s government noted Abe’s donation to a shrine that symbolizes “Japan’s colonization and glamorization of war,” the Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today that he hoped Japan would next year issue a forward-looking statement on World War II to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict. Abe marked the anniversary at a ceremony at the Budokan sports arena.
Regional tensions are also affecting U.S. foreign policy, creating a divide between the U.S.’s closest allies in Asia at a time the administration of President Barack Obama is trying to build a united front in the face of a more assertive China. “I’m not that optimistic that one single meeting in Beijing will pave the way to anything,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat and visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “The strategic and political disagreements are everywhere between the U.S. and China, Japan and China. Vietnam and the Philippines and Asean nations -- they all have strategic dilemmas with the Chinese.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at email@example.com; Henry Sanderson in Beijing at firstname.lastname@example.org; Maiko Takahashi in Tokyo at email@example.com