Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed away from a Tokyo war shrine on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat Saturday, a day after he tried to draw a line under previous official apologies for the conflict, saying Japan inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering.”
Rather than paying his respects personally, Abe made a donation to the Yasukuni shrine. More than 60 lawmakers and at least two cabinet ministers visited Saturday, risking the ire of South Korea and China that view the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past aggression in Asia.
In blazing heat, thousands of people of all ages -- some in military uniforms -- streamed into the shrine where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with millions of war dead. The street leading to the main entrance was packed with campaigners for causes such as changing the pacifist constitution and withdrawing a 1993 apology to the thousands of women forced into Japanese military brothels.
In his much-anticipated statement Friday -- aimed at China and South Korea as much as domestic voters -- Abe stopped short of making a personal apology for Japan’s wartime action. He said Japan inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering,” but shouldn’t be expected to continually apologize for a conflict that ended 70 years ago.
“We should not apologize for ever into the future,” Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi said Saturday in a speech at the shrine.
At a ceremony in Tokyo to mark the anniversary, Emperor Akihito said he attended with a “deep and renewed sense of sorrow” for the war dead. “Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” he said.
Akihito has never visited the shrine because it memorializes war criminals.
Kyodo News reported that this was the first time he has expressed “deep remorse” at the ceremony.
In crafting the first official Japanese statement on the war in a decade, Abe sought to mend frayed ties with China and South Korea, which have accused him of trying to whitewash history and revive Japanese militarism.
The history issue is one of the main reasons Abe has yet to hold a formal summit with either Chinese President Xi Jinping or South Korean President Park Geun Hye since coming to power in 2012. Abe has been reaching out to both leaders as he sees to shore up relations with Japan’s two-biggest Asian trading partners, which buy more a quarter of Japanese exports.
In response to Abe’s speech, China urged Japan to make a “sincere apology” and produce an explicit statement on the nature of “the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars” rather being evasive on the issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
South Korean President Park said in a speech Saturday to mark the anniversary of the end of Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula that Abe’s statement was “lacking.”
“History is not something that can be hidden, but it lives through the testimony of witnesses still alive,” she said.
Still, she signaled it was time for relations between the two countries to move forward “based on the right historical recognition despite many challenges remaining.”
Abe, grandson of a cabinet minister who signed the declaration of war against the U.S., sought to offer enough contrition in his statement to prompt a thaw in relations with Japan’s neighbors, while keeping his nationalist base on side.
“In the end, Abe does realize that the price of appeasing his more conservative constituency would be alienating many of the neighbors in Asia,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University. “It’s likely that the statement will keep the temperature lowered with Beijing, though Seoul may protest.”