Posted: Dec 25, 2013 10:34 PM
Updated: Dec 25, 2013 10:35 PM
TOKYO (AP) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects Thursday at a shrine honoring Japan's war dead in a move that drew a quick rebuke from China for both celebrating his country's militaristic past and heightening concern in neighboring countries that Japan may veer back in that direction.
The visit to Yasukuni shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead including convicted class A war criminals, appears to be a departure from Abe's "pragmatic" approach to leadership, focusing on reviving the economy and trying to avoid alienating neighboring countries.
It was the first visit by a sitting prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went to mark the end of World War II in 2006.
Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians have long been a point of friction with China and South Korea, because of Japan's brutal aggression during World War II.
Abe, wearing a formal black jacket with tails and striped, gray pants, spent about 15 minutes at the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo. TV cameras followed him inside the shrine property, but were not allowed in the inner shrine.
"I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace," he told waiting reporters immediately afterward.
He said criticism that Yasukuni visits are an act of worshipping war criminals is based on a misunderstanding, and that he believes Japan must never wage war again.
"Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue," he said, adding, "It is not my intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang issued a strong rebuke in a statement posted on the ministry's website.
"We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts," Qin said.
He called visits to Yasukuni "an effort to glorify the Japanese militaristic history of external invasion and colonial rule ... and to challenge the outcome of World War II."
He added that "the effort to go against the historical trend is sure to cause great vigilance and strong worries among Asian neighbors and the international community over the direction of Japan's future development."
Thursday's visit came on the first anniversary of Abe's taking office as prime minister. Abe, who had visited previously when he was not prime minister, had expressed extreme regret over his decision not to visit Yasukuni during an earlier one-year term in office in 2006-2007.
Adding to the unease of Japan's neighbors is Abe's support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution and expanding the military at a time of rising tensions over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China.
Japanese political scientist Koichi Nakano said the visit answered the lingering question of whether Abe is a pragmatist or a rabid nationalist.
"I think we know where his beliefs lie," said Nakano, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "He's not in politics because of economics. He's a conviction politician just like Margaret Thatcher was. Pragmatism and conviction don't go very well together."
A defense analyst, Narushige Michishita at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, noted that voters may start questioning Abe's commitment to the issues most important to them, such as the economy and pension reform,
But, he added, "in terms of foreign policy, this might have been the best timing for him to visit. The relationship with Korea and China is already at the bottom and, in an ironic way, it cannot deteriorate much further."
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Gillian Wong, in Beijing, contributed.