Dressed to the nines and trailing media helicopters, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at last paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. It was not his first visit there but it was the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006. The shrine, a monument to Japan’s fallen soldiers, is considered a symbol of Japanese wartime aggression by China and South Korea. Abe has repeatedly spoken of his desire to pay his respects at the shrine while in office, and Japan’s most conservative and hawkish prime minister in years finally got his wish today, only days after his government announced hefty upgrades to the country’s military.
Predictably, China and South Korea condemned Abe’s visit. China officially issued a “strong protest and severe reprimand” and a statement on the foreign ministry’s website added “it’s absolutely intolerable for the Chinese side.” Said the South Koreans: “Our government cannot help but deplore and express anger over the fact that Prime Minister Abe ignored the concerns and warnings of the neighboring countries and the world community and paid respect at the Yasukuni shrine, which glorifies Japan’s colonial rule and war of aggression.”
The US also issued a rare rebuke to Tokyo: “The United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors,” reads a statement on the Embassy’s website. Abe dismissed these concerns, saying, “Japan must never wage war again. This is my conviction based on severe remorse for the past. It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.”
Nevertheless, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni comes at a tense moment in East Asia. China is in the midst of a remarkable expansion of naval and air forces and aggressively maneuvering to claim disputed territory in the East and South China Seas. Responding to this and other threats to Japan’s security, Shinzo Abe has stretched the spirit of Japan’s pacifist constitution to the limit by raising defense spending for the first time in years and building up Japan’s defense forces with new surveillance and marine defense units. Exacerbating these tensions by enflaming historical disagreements, Abe has made the region more dangerous, not less, and further estranged Japan from its neighbors.