Two Japanese cabinet ministers visited a controversial war shrine in Tokyo in a move that may worsen relations with China and South Korea that are fraying over maritime territorial disputes.
The two men today visited Yasukuni Shrine, whose honorees include men convicted of war crimes, to commemorate the 67th anniversary of Japan’s surrender that ended World War II. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda each attended ceremonies in their countries to mark the occasion.
“Chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in Northeast Asia,” Lee said in Seoul. Noda expressed “profound remorse” for Japan causing “tremendous damage and suffering” during the war, in remarks in Tokyo.
Lee’s Aug. 10 trip to a string of islets also claimed by Japan worsened ties between Asia’s second and fourth-biggest economies and preceded a flare-up over a separate set of islands to which Japan and China each assert ownership. The bickering comes ahead of leadership contests this year in all three countries.
Lee reiterated his call for the Japanese government to compensate Korean women forced into prostitution during World War II. Lee yesterday said Emperor Akihito should apologize for Japan’s aggression during the first half of the 20th century, when it occupied the Korean peninsula and much of China.
Noda and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba today both criticized Lee’s request for an apology from the emperor as “extremely regrettable.” Gemba called on both countries to deal with their differences “calmly.”
As many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, were forced into sexual servitude during Japan’s colonial period. The Japanese government apologized in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that some victims rejected because it was funded through private contributions.
Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea in protest after Lee’s visit to the rocks, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean and which lie 87 kilometers (54 miles) east of the closest South Korean territory and 158 kilometers from the nearest Japanese land. The area includes fishing grounds and natural gas reserves and may also have oil, according to the South Korean government.
A maritime dispute between Japan and China flared as a boat carrying a group of activists from Hong Kong approached islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries. At least six Japanese Coast Guard vessels surrounded the boat after issuing a warning that it had entered Japan’s territorial waters, group leader Chan Miu-Tak said by telephone in Hong Kong.
The Coast Guard yesterday said it will stop the Hong Kong group from reaching the islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. Chan, chairman of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, said the boat was about 27 nautical miles from the islands.
China has asked Japan not to take actions that will harm the activists, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement posted on the ministry website.
A group of about 150 people, including some Japanese lawmakers, plan to sail a boat near the islands on Aug. 19. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in April said the metropolitan government was seeking to buy the islands from a private Japanese family that owns them, sparking outrage in China.
Sovereignty over the area gives the holder control of undersea natural gas and oil fields, and China and Japan signed an agreement in 2008 for joint development that has yet to be implemented. The collision of a Chinese fishing vessel with two Japanese Coast Guard boats in the area almost two years ago soured relations between the two countries.
National Public Safety Commission Chairman Jin Matsubara and Land Minister Yuichiro Hata became the first cabinet members to go to Yasukuni since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, pledging to improve ties with China and South Korea. The two ignored Noda’s Aug. 10 call for his ministers “to refrain from officially visiting the shrine.”
South Korea holds a presidential election in December to replace Lee after his five-year term. China is gearing up for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year and Noda faces re-election as head of the DPJ in September.