TOKYO (CNN) — A 30-minute visit to a controversial shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ignited a predictable firestorm of criticism and condemnation Thursday from Japan’s neighbors.
The Yasukuni Shrine is regarded by China, North Korea and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s imperial military past. All three countries suffered under Japan’s military aggression in World War II. Millions of Chinese civilians and soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of Koreans, died.
So, each time a top Japanese official has visited, the countries have protested — saying the visits honor war criminals and deny Japan’s atrocities in Asia.
Not so, said Abe on Thursday. He wanted to pray for the souls of the war dead, not honor war criminals, he said.
“I have renewed my determination before the souls of the war dead to firmly uphold the pledge never to wage a war again,” he said.
Abe’s visit came exactly a year after he took office, during which time he has received the cold shoulder from both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye during regional conferences.
It also comes at a time when Japan and China have ratcheted up rhetoric over the ownership of a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkakus in Japan.
Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, have an ongoing spat over a disputed submerged rock in the Yellow Sea, known by Korea as Ieodo and by Japan as Suyan.
Perhaps to preempt the outrage over his visit, Abe struck a conciliatory tone afterward.
“It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people,” he said. “It is my wish to respect each other’s character, protect freedom and democracy, and build friendship with China and Korea with respect, as did all the previous Prime Minsiters who visited the Yasukuni Shrine.”
It was too little too late.
The Chinese foreign ministry immediately issued a tersely-worded statement, saying Beijing “expresses strongest indignation for this act, which heavily offends the Chinese people and people of other Asian countries that were victims of WWII.”
“Honoring the shrine is, in its essence, embellishing and falsely beautifying Japan’s military invasion and colonization.”
Speaking at a press conference, South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism said that he cannot help but deplore and express anger and urged Japan to stop “beautifying” its invasion.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said it was disappointed by the visit.
“Japan is a valued ally and friend,” the embassy said. “Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Japan’s Temple University, said Japan has made its history into an issue when it should be seeking the cooperation of China and South Korea in dealing with the threat North Korea poses.
“Trampling on the neighbors’ sensitivities about their shared past also limits room for managing territorial disputes involving both countries or making headway on a range of other pressing issues,” he said.
A matter of perspective?
In his statement after the visit, Abe acknowledged that such visits have become a political and diplomatic issue.
But should they be? Depends on the perspective, says J. Berkshire Miller, a fellow on Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum.
There are more than 2.4 million names enshrined at Yasukuni. But among them are 14 who were found guilty of war crimes by a Tokyo military tribunal in 1945.
Also, the site remembers Japan’s war dead not just from World War II, but also its war against Imperial Germany during World War I and the Satsuma rebellion in the 19th century.
In October, several officials, including Abe’s brother — senior vice foreign minister Nobuo Kishi — visited the shrine, according to Kyodo News. The visits were part of an autumn festival and included 159 members of the Diet, Japan’s national legislature.
The Prime Minister refrained from visiting the shrine then, but sent an offering.
The lawmakers insisted the visits have been misrepresented by the foreign media and that the shrine is where Japanese visitors go to “pray for peace.”
The site, built in 1869, enshrines those who “devoted their lives to their country,” the group said at the time.
“The problem for Japan,” says Miller, “is that none of this matters to many of its critics.”
CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki reported from Tokyo; Ed Payne wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s KJ Kwon also contributed from Seoul, South Korea