YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The United States expressed disappointment over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to visit the Yasukuni war shrine, in a rare case of criticism directed at one of its closest allies.
Abe’s visit Thursday morning to Yasukuni, which honors about 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals from World War II, also drew criticism from both China and South Korea within minutes of his arrival at the shrine.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo cautioned that Abe’s visit could further denigrate already soured regional relations. Many in China and South Korea harbor strong feelings over Japan’s World War II aggression and perceive that its government hasn’t apologized enough.
Meanwhile, both countries have simmering territorial disputes over islands claimed by Japan, and have reacted negatively to Abe’s plans to give Japan’s Self-Defense Forces the ability to fight alongside allies. Japan’s current constitution only allows its forces to fight if directly attacked.
“Japan is a valued ally and friend,” a U.S. Embassy statement said. “Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
“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. We take note of the Prime Minister’s expression of remorse for the past and his reaffirmation of Japan’s commitment to peace.”
Following his visit, Abe told reporters that he had no intention of hurting the feelings of anyone in South Korea or China.
“I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace,” he said, according to media reports.
Abe’s visit came in a “purely personal capacity,” according to a statement put out later by Japan’s Foreign Ministry.
Abe’s purpose for visiting the shrine “was to report before the souls of the war dead how his administration worked for one year and to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again,” according to the Foreign Ministry statement.
The visit became breaking news in both Seoul and Beijing, according to overseas broadcasts shown on Japan’s NHK news as it occurred.
Chinese official rebuke came swiftly. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said Abe’s visit showed “total disregard of the strong opposition of the Chinese side.” “The Japanese leader has gone out of his way to once again create a serious incident on the issue of history, thus erecting a new, major political barrier to the improvement and development of bilateral ties,” Qin said. “The Japanese side must bear the responsibility for all the consequences arising therefrom.”
At least 20 million Chinese perished in the war with Japan, which started in 1937 and ended in 1945. Nearly 500,000 Japanese troops died in the fighting which covered most of eastern China, according to government statistics.
Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to visit Yasukuni since Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. Although that visit also brought condemnation from Japan’s neighbors, it occurred when tensions over territory, sea transit and other regional issues were much lower than they are now.
The visit also makes Tokyo-Seoul ties even less likely to improve. South Korean President Park Geun-hye refused recently to hold a summit with Abe unless Japan takes further steps to apologize for its World War II past.
Ties between the two countries had been warming until 2012, to the delight of the U.S., which bases troops in both countries and counts them as key allies in the region. Relations soured when South Korea’s former president visited the disputed island administrated by South Korea as Dokdo, and known to Japanese as Takeshima, in 2012. They further deteriorated upon the election of Abe, who is seen as dangerously nationalistic by many in South Korea.