Opposition leader Shinzo Abe, a man well-placed to become Japan’s next prime minister, visited a Tokyo war shrine Wednesday, in a move that risks causing further friction with neighbouring countries.
Clad in formal evening dress, Abe, a one-time prime minister who was elected president of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last month, said he was at Yasukuni Shrine in an official capacity.
“As the autumn festival has started, I visited as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party so as to express my respect to the heroic spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country,” he told reporters.
The Shinto shrine in central Tokyo honours 2.5 million war dead, including 14 leading war criminals from World War II.
Visits to the shrine by government ministers and high-profile figures spark outrage in China and on the Korean peninsula, where many feel Japan has failed to atone for its brutal aggression in the first half of the 20th Century.
The visit comes as Japan’s relations with China and South Korea remain strained over two separate territorial disputes.
Chinese state media criticised the visit, saying it would “further poison bilateral ties”.
“At such a delicate moment, Abe’s visit… has added insult to injury and dealt another blow to the already fragile Sino-Japanese relations,” the Xinhua news agency said.
“Provocative and short-sighted actions would harm the interests of Japan and its people,” it said, noting that already the “strained political ties have produced serious economic fallout for both sides”.
Abe, known for his conservative views on history, has frequently visited Yasukuni, including this year on August 15 — the anniversary of the end of World War II — but stayed away in 2007 during his short-lived premiership.
Stepping down a year later, he said not visiting the shrine during his tenure was “extremely painful”.
His victory last month in the LDP leadership race positions him well for re-taking office in general elections that must be held within the next year.
But asked what he would do if he won the election, he equivocated.
“I’d better not say if I will visit or not as prime minister, considering current relations with China today,” he said. “It is the same for South Korea, too.”
Incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has not visited the shrine, although two of his ministers went in August.
His predecessor Junichiro Koizumi prayed annually at Yasukuni, including a visit on August 15 in 2006, infuriating China and South Korea, which refused to hold summits with him.