TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan visited a contentious Tokyo war shrine early today, provoking swift condemnation from China and South Korea, both victims of Japan’s wartime aggression.
Wearing formal attire, Abe led a group of government officials into the Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects.
Abe’s visit to the shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including Class A war criminals from the World War II era, was the first by a sitting Japanese head of state since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid his respects there in 2006.
Past visits by Japanese politicians have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered greatly under Japan’s empire-building efforts in the early 20th century.
Japanese prime ministers had stayed away from the shrine in recent years as the country sought to improve relations with China and South Korea.
Abe did not visit the shrine during his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, but he was a regular visitor as a lawmaker of the Liberal Democratic Party and most recently as opposition leader last year.
Speaking to reporters after his brief visit, Abe expressed frustration that the shrine still provoked such controversy.
He said that he had paid his respects not just to those who gave their lives serving Japan but to fallen soldiers around the world.
He added that he had prayed for peace.
His visit came at a tense time. Japan is already in a standoff with China over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and over a new air defense identification zone announced by China that includes airspace over the disputed islands. It is also embroiled in a dispute with South Korea over separate islets.
Luo Zhaohui, director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asian affairs department, wrote on the microblogging site Weibo: “This is absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people. It will cause great harm to the feelings of the Asian peoples and create a new, major political obstacle on bilateral relationships. Japan must bear the consequences.”
South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted unnamed government officials in South Korea who rebuked Abe, calling his visit to the shrine an act that “sought to justify Japan’s war of aggression.”
The United States also criticized Abe’s visit.
“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,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a statement.