Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, visited a controversial Tokyo war shrine, in a move that risks angering South Korea and China where deep bitterness remains over Japan’s past militarism.
Akie posted pictures of her visit on her Facebook page Thursday, and wrote that she was thankful to live in a peaceful country and pledged to do what she can to contribute to world peace, Kyodo News reported. She also visited the shrine’s museum, which has exhibitions explaining Japan’s role in World War II. Abe’s parliamentary office couldn’t immediately confirm the Facebook post.
The Yasukuni Shrine honors millions of Japanese war dead, including 14 wartime leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals after the conflict. Abe’s own visit to Yasukuni in December 2013, led to a deterioration in relations with China and South Korea and prompted a rebuke from the U.S. Abe’s position on the war is being closely scrutinized as he prepares to release a new statement on the conflict to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in August.
“The visit is a negative to the current status quo,” said Liu Jiangyong, professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who specializes in Japan studies. “She is the First Lady, not just a normal visitor or tourist, and this equals Abe’s vicarious or indirect visit. It’s hard to speculate on her motives, but it’s strange because she didn’t engage in politics before and gave the impression of a reasonable First Lady.”
The visit comes at a time when tensions between Japan and China were easing somewhat. Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a meeting with Abe at a conference in Indonesia on April 22, with the two leaders speaking for almost half an hour. At the closed-door meeting, Xi urged Abe to take Asian concerns about historical issues seriously, according to China Radio International.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye continues to refuse to meet with Abe until he does more to atone for the country’s wartime legacy. She has demanded Abe make a more robust apology for Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea and has called on Abe to offer compensation to surviving “comfort women” who were forced into sexual servitude by the Imperial Army across Asia.
Chinese and South Korean officials have repeatedly accused Abe of trying to revive Japanese militarism and whitewash the Imperial Army’s role in the Asian war, which killed more than 25 million people in the region, most of them Chinese.
Abe has expressed remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the war and has said that he upholds previous apologies offered by Japanese prime ministers for the 50th and 60th anniversary of the war’s end. Still, he has said that he doesn’t plan to repeat their full-throated apologies in his statement on the war in August.
“All this will do is amp up speculation about what Abe says in the August statement,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “I imagine Beijing and Seoul will be miffed, but will be somewhat moderate in their response.”