Shinzo Abe became the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Yasukuni Shrine since 2006, drawing a quick rebuke from China for paying respects at a site that memorializes war-dead including World War II criminals.
The appearance by Abe, 59, at the Tokyo site contrasts with his first administration in 2006-2007, when he avoided the shrine and oversaw an improvement in China ties. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Cheng Yonghua, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, “severely criticized” Abe’s visit in a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki.
The move escalates tensions with China, coming on both the one-year anniversary of Abe’s second ascension to power and the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong, with Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping honoring the founder of the communist state. Relations soured in late 2012 when Japan’s government purchased disputed islands in the East China Sea from a private owner, sparking a backlash in China against Japanese companies including automakers and clothing retailers.
“Regrettably, it is a reality that the visit to Yasukuni Shrine has become a political and diplomatic issue,” Abe said in a statement. “It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.”
Abe, whose support rating has fallen this month, called earlier in December for a summit with Xi, flagging how he had visited China and met with then-President Hu Jintao in 2006. The comments in an interview followed friction over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, with China last month declaring an air-defense zone that covers the territory.
“It is quite incendiary,” David Zweig, professor of political science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said in an e-mail. “Many voices within official circles will call for large-scale protests. Hopefully they will not prevail. But Abe may have decided to respond to China’s ADIZ, so the escalation continues.”
China Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said his country “strongly” protested Abe’s move.
“Some Japanese politicians, on the one hand, pay lip service to freedom and peace, and on the other hand they are raising the banner to call upon the dead soul of militarism by beautifying aggression and colonial history,” Qin told reporters at a daily briefing today.
The Japanese consulate in Shanghai urged Japanese people in China to exercise caution, releasing an e-mailed statement noting a “strong anti-Japanese” tone in Chinese media reports. China Vice Premier Liu Yandong canceled a meeting with the Japan-China friendship parliamentarians’ union, Kyodo News reported, citing the Japanese embassy in China.
The U.S. is disappointed that ally Japan has acted to exacerbate tensions in the region, the U.S. Embassy in Japan said in a statement on its website. “The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past,” it said. During a visit to the region earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden urged Japan and China to set up crisis-management communication.
Abe’s visit will “be offensive to the Americans, as they sent him a clear message in October not to visit Yasukuni,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “He clearly ignored this advice.”
South Korean Culture Minister Yoo Jin Ryong called Abe’s move “deplorable” and said Japan should work to build trust. The shrine “glorifies Japan’s history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule,” Yoo told reporters in Seoul.
Japan’s economic ties with China were affected last year when the rift over the islands widened, with automakers suffering billions of dollars in lost revenue. The spat over the air zone, which overlaps with Japan’s, had yet to hurt the business of Japan’s carmakers as of November -- Toyota Motor Corp. reported that its China deliveries rose 41 percent from November 2012.
Abe and Xi have sought to build up their nations’ militaries. Japan’s government approved a plan earlier this month to boost defense spending with purchases of military hardware and further investment in anti-missile systems.
Xi, 60, has called for China to be a strong maritime force and in September, 2012, the nation commissioned its first aircraft carrier. Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng urged Japan to work with China over the East China Sea. “Japan should take out actual actions, together with China, control the crisis together and create conditions to solve related problems,” Geng said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
Japan’s Topix index added 1.7 percent to close at its highest level since Aug. 11, 2008, while the Nikkei 225 Stock Average climbed 1 percent. The yen fell to a five-year low against the dollar amid prospects the Bank of Japan will continue unprecedented stimulus while the Federal Reserve cuts back.
Yasukuni honors dead including 14 World War II leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals, such as Hideki Tojo, who was a prime minister and war minister in the 1940s. Abe today told reporters that he regretted not going to the shrine during his first term as premier.
Abe, who is a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime commerce minister who served as prime minister in the 1950s, sent a cash donation to the shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, and in October sent a traditional offering, according to an official in the shrine’s public relations department who asked not to be named because of policy.
Abe’s visit comes as his popularity falls at home. His ruling coalition on Dec. 6 passed a bill to boost penalties for divulging state secrets that had drawn thousands of protesters outside the Diet. His government has pledged to lift the sales tax to 8 percent from 4 percent in April, raising concern about a hit to consumer demand.
A poll published by the Mainichi newspaper on Dec. 24 found 49 percent of respondents supported Abe’s administration, down five percentage points from November and the first Mainichi poll below 50 percent since his election win.
Briefing reporters in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe made a visit “from a personal standpoint,” adding “this is a matter of freedom of religious expression and not something that the government should intrude on.”
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of coalition partner the New Komeito Party, told reporters that Abe’s visit was “regretful,” Kyodo reported. Opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Banri Kaieda told reporters a person in Abe’s position should exercise self-restraint, the Nikkei reported.
“Abe feels that such gestures will help to enhance his nationalist appeal,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University in Hong Kong. “From a cost-benefits analysis, this is something that Abe has been quite prepared to do.”
Abe went to the shrine more than seven years after Junichiro Koizumi made the last of several appearances at the location as prime minister -- actions that at the time spurred criticism from China.
Abe’s visit will take China-Japan ties “from bad to worse,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Before the visit, there were questions about whether China-Japan relations could get any worse, and now Abe has shown the answer is ‘yes.’”