Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided visiting a Tokyo shrine on the 68th anniversary of the country’s World War II defeat, opting to send a cash donation as he seeks to avoid further damage to regional ties.
Three members of Abe’s cabinet paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past military aggression. A group of about 100 lawmakers, including the policy chief of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, prayed together at the site. China lodged a formal diplomatic protest.
“I sent a donation to mourn and offer my thanks to those who fought for the country and gave their precious lives,” Abe told reporters today at his official residence in Tokyo. “This is a day to pray for peace.” He declined to comment on whether he might visit the shrine again.
Trips to Yasukuni by senior government officials risk worsening ties with China and South Korea, which are embroiled in separate territorial disputes with Japan. The site commemorates Japan’s war dead, including 14 wartime leaders convicted as war criminals, and visits by politicians revive ill feelings in countries that suffered under Japanese occupation.
“Japanese leaders should show their courageous leadership to heal wounds of the past so that both countries can develop as a true cooperative partner that the people of the two nations hope for,” South Korean President Park Geun Hye said in a speech in Seoul marking the end of Japan’s 35-year occupation of the peninsula that began in 1910.
Ties with China have deteriorated since Japan bought three of five East China Sea islands last September that are also claimed by China. Trade and investment links between Asia’s two largest economies have been damaged, and no bilateral summit has been held for more than a year. Japan is embroiled in a spat with South Korea over another set of islands.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on the Foreign Ministry’s website that there would be no future for relations between Japan and its neighbors if Japan doesn’t stick to its commitments on historical issues. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin summoned Japan’s ambassador to lodge a formal protest.
Japan’s Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo told reporters he paid his respects at the shrine as a private individual. National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya said at the site that it wasn’t for other nations to dictate whether officials could honor the country’s war dead. Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada also visited the site.
Members of the public lined up outside the shrine in searing heat to wait their turn to offer prayers, while right-wing demonstrators in black vans emblazoned with slogans like “destroy our enemy” blasted the area with military music.
Abe, who is also seeking to avoid alienating nationalist supporters of his plans to bolster the military and amend Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution, declined to say if he’d visit Yasukuni again, adding he did not want it to become a political issue. He paid his respects there last year before coming to power in December elections.
“I think his decision today is one that’s very clear, very thoughtful and looking toward the future,” Robert Mendendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after meeting Abe in Tokyo. Such efforts to avoid being “cemented in the past” were good for Japan, he said.
Abe offered prayers at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery today and attended a memorial service in Tokyo alongside Emperor Akihito. In a speech at the memorial service, Abe avoided mentioning the harm caused to Japan’s neighbors, something that is usually referenced in comments on the anniversary, Kyodo reported, although he did say “we should face up humbly to our history and engrave its lessons on our hearts.”
U.S. pressure may have contributed to Abe’s decision to avoid Yasukuni, Lu Hao, a researcher in the Japan research department at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, wrote in China’s official People’s Daily today.
“The U.S. fears that Japan, because of excessive historical revisionism, will cause relations with neighbors to deteriorate, which will lead U.S. relations with Asia-Pacific nations into a conundrum,” Lu wrote.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated that it was a matter of course for Japanese to mourn their war dead and said the government wouldn’t express a view on Abe’s decision.
“At the deeper level the issue is really about history and whether or not Japan is willing to reconcile itself with past atrocities it committed against not only Chinese people but Asia at large,” said Dong Wang, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University.
Finance Minister Taro Aso visited Yasukuni earlier in the year, sparking the cancellation of a planned visit by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se. Aso has also attracted criticism for a speech last month in which he said the government could learn about how to change the constitution from the Nazis. He later retracted the remarks.