Two Japanese Cabinet members and a group of lawmakers marked the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II on Friday by visiting a Tokyo shrine that China and South Korea regard as a totem to Japan’s militarist past. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — whose last trip to the site sparked a downturn in Japan’s relations with Beijing and Seoul — stayed away.
Abe’s decision to refrain from joining the visit could be interpreted as a bid to avoid stoking further tensions with China ahead of a possible one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, when China will host an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum of regional leaders.
Abe instead attended a ceremony at a Tokyo sports arena along with Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and thousands of relatives of Japan’s war dead.
On Aug. 15, 1945, after the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, announced Japan’s surrender on the radio.
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It was the first time the Japanese public had heard the voice of the emperor, who until then was treated as a divinity.
“Here, before the souls of those who fell on the battlefields thinking of their homeland and concerned about their families, as well as the souls of those who perished amidst the destruction of the war, and those who lost their lives in remote foreign countries … I offer my heartfelt prayers for the repose of their souls,” Abe said.
“The peace and prosperity that we now enjoy have been built upon the precious sacrifices of the war dead. … Today is a day on which we renew that pledge toward peace,” he added.
Japanese politicians’ pilgrimages to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine have long been a sore point with China and South Korea. Among the nearly 2.5 million war dead memorialized at the site are more than 1,000 designated war criminals, and Beijing and Seoul say the visits by officials indicate a lack of full contrition for Japan’s wartime brutality and occupation.
Yoshitaka Shindo, Japan’s internal-affairs minister, and Keiji Furuya, chairman of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission, were the Cabinet members who visited Yasukuni on Friday.
Although Abe avoided the shrine, he did send a ritual offering, a move that drew predictable denunciations from the foreign ministries of China and South Korea.
South Korea “cannot but deplore” Abe’s offering and the visits by the Cabinet members and lawmakers, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the visits “once again demonstrate the Japanese government’s wrongful attitude toward historical issues.”
Abe, who became Japan’s prime minister in 2012, has yet to hold a summit with either Xi or South Korean President Park Geun-hye, both of whom took office in early 2013.
In addition to the shrine visits, relations among Japan, South Korea and China have been strained by territorial disputes and Abe’s push to revise Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution.
Abe has said that he wants to give Japan’s self-defense forces more latitude to come to the aid of allies under attack and that the move is not an attempt to “remilitarize” the country as some critics have charged.