Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sparked global outrage when he went to the controversial Yasukuni shrine on Thursday, aggravating recent tensions with China and South Korea by visiting burial grounds that house several WWII war criminals.
Yasukuni is home to roughly 2.5 million Japanese that were killed in wars over the past 150 years, including 14 Class A war criminals. Their presence makes a trip by any Japanese official to the site unavoidably symbolic. China and South Korea see a visit to the shrine as an indiscriminate celebration of the country's role in the Second World War; and a failure to acknowledge Japanese war crimes committed at the time. A serving prime minister has not visited the site in seven years, and Abe himself said during his first stint as prime minister, in 2006, that he would not discuss visiting the shrine "as long as the issue remains a diplomatic problem." It's still a diplomatic problem.
Abe, by way of defense, offered a fairly weak (and eerie) explanation, saying that he "visited Yasukuni Shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war." According to Reuters, he acknowledged to reporters that "there is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals." Perhaps contributing to the alleged confusion is the fact that Abe has long been accused of indulging in revisionist history to boost Japanese patriotism; that the contentious trip marks his one-year anniversary as Japan's leader,;and that today is also Chinese founding father Mao Zedong's birthday — all of which give the visit even more diplomatic weight.
According to CNN, Abe tried to avert controversy by addressing possible concerns immediately following the visit:
"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 Ministers who visited the Yasukuni Shrine."
This, of course, didn't work. Qin Gang, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, issued a statement saying "We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts," adding:
The essence of Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan's history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule... [Abe is] brutally trampling on the feelings of the Chinese people and those of other victimized Asian countries.
South Korea's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism took a slightly softer tone, condemning the act by saying "We cannot withhold regret and anger over the visit." The U.S. also chimed in, expressing disappointment "that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tension with Japan's neighbors." The statement continues:
The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past, to improve their relations, and to promote cooperation in advancing our shared goals of regional peace and stability.
Abe's move is especially poignant following escalating territorial disputes between China and Japan, over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea, and between Japan and South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan. Last year, regional tension resulted in economic loss for Japan when Chinese consumers boycotted the country's automakers, and Abe's visit has resurfaced fears of another economic backlash.
North Korea, also affected by Japanese war crimes, has not responded to the visit. But North Korea has repeatedly warned that it will strike enemies without warning, so maybe Abe should keep an eye out for them, too.