Tokyo (AFP) – Nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an inflammatory visit to the Yasukuni war shrine Thursday, angering China which accused Japan of whitewashing a history of warmongering and said it must “bear the consequences”.
South Korea also blasted the “anachronistic” move and Tokyo’s chief ally the United States declared itself disappointed with an act that it said would worsen tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Abe described his visit, which came days after he gave Japan’s military its second consecutive annual budget bump, as a pledge against war and said it was not aimed at hurting feelings in China or South Korea.
Yasukuni Shrine is believed to be the repository of around 2.5 million souls of Japan’s war dead, most of them common soldiers, but also including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II.
South Korea and China see it as a symbol of Tokyo’s lack of repentance for the horrors of last century and say it downplays the country’s brutal past.
“Some people criticize the visit to Yasukuni as paying homage to war criminals, but the purpose of my visit today… is… to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again,” Abe said in a statement.
“It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people. It is my wish to respect each other’s character, protect freedom and democracy, and build friendship with China and Korea with respect.”
Abe’s visit came exactly 12 months after he took power, a period in which he has formally met neither China’s President Xi Jinping nor Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye.
Ties with Beijing were bad before Abe took office, with the two countries crossing diplomatic swords over the ownership of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
The dispute has ratcheted up this year, with the involvement of military aircraft and ships, leaving some observers warning of the danger of armed conflict.
Beijing wasted no time in slamming Abe’s move, which came on the day Xi and other senior Chinese leaders visited the mausoleum of late leader Mao Zedong to mark his 120th birth anniversary.
China summoned Tokyo’s ambassador and delivered a “strong protest and severe reprimand”, the foreign ministry said.