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.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the shrine visit was “a flagrant provocation against international justice and treads arbitrarily on humanity’s conscience”, according to a ministry statement.
“The essence of Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan’s history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said earlier.
Foreign ministry official Luo Zhaohui called the visit “absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people” and cautioned Japan “must bear the consequences arising from this”.
The last incumbent Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine was Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. His repeated pilgrimages badly soured relations with China despite their important economic and trade ties.
The foreign ministry in Tokyo said it wanted to stress Abe “visited Yasukuni Shrine in a purely personal capacity (and)… not… to pay homage to war criminals”.
But China and South Korea, both victims of Japan’s 20th century aggression, say no such distinction exists.
“We can’t help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine… despite concerns and warnings by neighboring countries,” Seoul’s Culture Minister Yoo Jin-Ryong told reporters.
“The visit… is anachronistic behavior that fundamentally damages not only relations between the South and Japan but also stability and cooperation in Northeast Asia.”
Washington must tread a careful line between supporting its chief regional ally in the face of China’s rise, and emboldening a prime minister many observers see as a hot-headed troublemaker. It offered qualified criticism.
“Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors,” Washington said in a statement.
Abe’s forthright views on history — he has previously questioned the definition of “invade” in relation to Japan’s military adventurism last century — have raised fears over the direction he wants to take officially pacifist Japan.
He has spoken repeatedly of his desire to tweak the U.S.-imposed constitution and is pushing to broaden the role of the military to permit “collective self-defense”, allowing Japanese troops to come to the aid of allies.
Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said the visit was “an act of folly” that was certain to make a bad situation worse.
“It is perfectly possible his visit will fuel worries in Washington over a possible rise of militarism and a shift to the right in Japan,” he said.