TOKYO – Japan’s Defense Minister visited a Tokyo shrine, viewed by China and both Koreans as a symbol of Japanese war aggression, to pray for the war dead on Friday, just days before the nation celebrates the 76th anniversary of its World War II defeat.
Victims of Japanese actions in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in Korea and China, see the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism as it honors convicted war criminals from among around 2.5 million war dead.
“It is natural in every country to show respect for the spirits of the war dead,” said Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is known for denying the atrocities of war.
“I expressed my awe and paid tribute to those who fought for the country and lost their lives in the last war,” Kishi said after the prayer. “I have also renewed my promise and determination to protect people’s lives and peaceful livelihoods.”
He is the first incumbent defense minister to visit Yasukuni since visiting Tomomi Inada, an Abe protégé, in December 2016.
Abe stayed away from the shrine for seven years after a 2013 visit sparked outrage in China and Korea, but has been visiting regularly since stepping down as prime minister last year.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga donated a religious ornament during the Yasukuni Spring Festival in April but avoided visiting the shrine.
The Minister of Economy and Finance in charge of pandemic measures, Yasutoshi Nishimura, visited the shrine separately on Friday.
Kishi and Nishimura said they decided to visit the shrine to avoid the crowds and pray quietly before the anniversary on August 15th.
South Korea and China criticize offers or visits by Japanese leaders to the shrine and urge them to face and ponder Japanese war aggression.
Many South Koreans have strong resentments towards Japan because of its colonial rule on the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have plummeted in recent years due to disputes over compensation for Korean forced labor and sexual abuse of so-called “comfort women” by the Japanese military.
The South Korean foreign ministry said it had called the deputy head of mission at the Japanese embassy in Seoul to protest Kishi’s visit to Yasukuni, a place it described as “embellishing the past colonial rule of Japan and the war of aggression and honoring war criminals.” The Seoul Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying Kishi’s visit was “unfortunate” and expressing “serious concerns and regrets”.