Japan’s premier Fumio Kishida vowed to never again wage war on the anniversary of Japan’s World War Two surrender while members of his cabinet visited a controversial shrine to mark the date, annoying South Korea and likely also irking China.
With the Yasukuni Shrine seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, Tokyo’s ties with China are already particularly strained this year after Beijing conducted unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan following the visit there by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this month.
During the drills, several missiles fell in waters inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
The anniversary commemoration’s links to Yasukuni, a site that honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, as well as war dead, saw Kishida face a tricky balancing act on Monday.
On the dovish side of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), his task was to avoid irking international neighbors and partners while still keeping the more right-wing members of the party happy – particularly after the killing of former premier Shinzo Abe last month.
Kishida sent an offering to the central Tokyo shrine without visiting, Kyodo news agency reported. He also sent offerings to Yasukuni during festivals last year and this spring.
“We will never again repeat the horrors of war. I will continue to live up to this determined oath,” Kishida told a secular gathering elsewhere in Tokyo, also attended by Emperor Naruhito.
“In a world where conflicts are still unabated, Japan is a proactive leader in peace,” he said.
In South Korea, official reaction was swift, with officials expressed “deep disappointment” and regret.
“The Korean government is urging Japan’s responsible people to face history and show humble reflection and genuine reflection on the past through action,” a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Beijing made no official comment pending a routine briefing at the country’s foreign affairs ministry later on Monday.
‘Issue for Japanese people’
In downtown Tokyo, people of all ages packed the shrine to pay respects despite the sultry heat. At noon, they bowed their heads for a moment of silence as cicadas buzzed.
“People from various countries may say things, but this is an issue of the Japanese people, so Japanese people need to decide themselves,” said Yukie Takahashi, a 60-year-old office worker.
“It’s a day to worship, to look back on the past, reflect on it, and pray.”
Among those visiting the shrine were, as usual, a small but vocal group of right-wing activists, some dressed in military uniforms and bearing flags. In a separate gesture, doves were released at the shrine as a symbol of peace.
Footage on broadcaster NHK showed the shrine being visited early on Monday by several cabinet ministers, including Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi, along with Koichi Hagiuda, the head of the LDP’s policy research council and a key Abe ally.
“It is natural for any country to pay respect to those who gave their lives for their country,” chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said earlier on Monday. “Japan will continue to strengthen its relations with its neighbors, including China and South Korea.”
A group of lawmakers that normally visit en masse on Aug. 15 said last week they would not do so due to a recent surge in coronavirus cases.
Abe was the last prime minister in recent memory to visit Yasukuni while in office, in 2013 – a visit that outraged both China and South Korea and even drew a rebuke from its close ally the United States.
The United States and Japan have become staunch security allies in the decades since the war’s end, but its legacy still haunts East Asia.
Koreans, who mark the date as National Liberation Day, resent Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula, while China has bitter memories of imperial troops’ invasion and occupation of parts of the country from 1931-1945.
Kishida has pledged to substantially increase Japan’s defense budget, citing the increasingly tense regional security environment, but made no mention in a recent speech of one of Abe’s dreams – revising the country’s pacifist constitution – although he has spoken of it before.