This time last year, Asia observers around the world hung to every word Prime Minister Shinzo Abe uttered in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. This year, though the 71st milestone does not have the same global resonance, the date of August 15 continues to highlight discord between Japan and its two neighbors – China and South Korea.
Abe spent the day visiting Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which holds the remains of 365,000 unidentified Japanese soldiers who died overseas – a much more politically neutral site of remembrance than the Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial shrine that honors the souls of millions of Japanese war dead — including 14 Class-A war criminals. Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni, instead sending a proxy with a ritual offering made from his private funds.
Abe has made a habit of showing such restraint when it comes to Yasukuni Shrine on the symbolic anniversary. Despite his personal conviction that shrine visits are a domestic affair that other countries should not complain about, he has never visited Yasukuni as a prime minister on August 15 (he did visit on December 26, 2013, however). This year, restraint is particularly important vis-à-vis China as tensions rise in the East China Sea and preparations begin in earnest for the Group of 20 (G20) meeting in September.
However, several other political leaders did visit Yasukuni Shrine, including Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura, and Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa, much to China and South Korea’s consternation.
A nonpartisan group of lawmakers advocating for official visits to Yasukuni estimates that 67 lawmakers visited, and an additional 101 lawmakers sent proxies. Of the 67, 59 are from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Newly-appointed defense minister and rising LDP star Tomomi Inada was unable to visit this year, as she was on her first overseas visit as defense minister to Djibouti, where she met with Self-Defense Forces (SDF) personnel engaged in anti-piracy efforts. Inada is known for her regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, generating feelings of antipathy in Japan’s former victims, and her appointment to the high-profile position did nothing to appease China or South Korea. Whether the visit’s timing was intentional or not, flying her out of the country for the anniversary of the end of WWII was definitely a boon for those trying to salvage Japan’s ties with China and South Korea.
Across the Tsushima Strait, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is trying to reciprocate Abe’s efforts to keep relations on an even keel. In her televised address, she stated, “We should newly define relations with Japan to forge future-oriented ties.” In another demonstration of Park’s desire to work better with Japan during times of heightened tension on the peninsula, she also did not directly comment on the issue of “comfort women.”
This positive rhetoric comes on the heels of Japan and South Korea taking an important step towards implementing the December agreement to “finally and irreversibly” address the issue of Korea’s former “comfort women” issue last Friday, when they agreed that Japan’s 1 billion yen contribution would be used by the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation for medical and nursing care for these women.
Yet Park’s words may easily be overshadowed by several South Korean politicians’ visit to Takeshima/Dokdo islets. The 10 lawmakers visited the island – despite Japanese entreaties to refrain from doing so – and met with security personnel. The disputed islets are claimed by both Japan and South Korea, though South Korea effectively controls them. The visit was led by the ruling Saenuri Party’s Na Kyung-won, and included members from opposition parties. The Japanese government called the visit totally unacceptable and extremely regrettable.
While Emperor Akihito on Monday expressed “deep remorse” over WWII, Abe did not explicitly mention Japan’s wartime aggression overseas or remorse this year.