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War shrine visit by Japanese prime minister defended, vilified

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By The Washington Post
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday visited a Shinto shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including 14 war criminals, and is seen by Asian neighbors as a symbol of the nation's unrepentant militarism.

The visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the first by a sitting Japanese leader in seven years, raises the prospect of even deeper hostility between an already isolated Tokyo and its neighbors. It suggests that Abe, after a year of focusing on pragmatic, economic issues, is increasingly willing to play to his conservative base — a group that believes Japan has been unfairly vilified for its wartime past.

Abe said he made the trip to reflect on the “preciousness of peace,” not to antagonize South Korea and China. But those two countries responded furiously to Abe's visit, with Beijing's Foreign Ministry calling it a “gross violation of the feelings of Chinese people and people from other Asian countries” who were harmed during World War II.

The visit also causes fresh concerns for the Obama administration, which has encouraged Abe to reconcile with Japan's neighbors and keep quiet about deeply held, but historically inaccurate, views on Japan's wartime past.

“Japan is a valued ally and friend,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions” in the region.

Abe's visit was made amid a fierce territorial dispute with China over maritime territory in the East China Sea. Abe has said for months that he is interested in easing tensions with dialogue. But some analysts said Thursday that Abe's trip to Yasukuni hints at a different strategy, one in which he abandons the idea of reconciliation and instead uses the tensions to justify a broad right-wing platform that includes constitutional changes and relaxed restrictions on Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

Relations in this region remain fraught in part because of the debate over wartime history, and over whether Japan has properly atoned for the deeds of its imperial army. Some previous Japanese leaders have tried to apologize for those wartime actions. Others have spoken little about them. But Abe has frequently suggested in speeches that Japan should be proud of its history. Critics say his posture invites a whitewashing of past atrocities, an exoneration that the Yasukuni Shrine has come to represent.

“I think he wants to show the Japanese people that he's a leader who will stand up to pressure from the neighbors,” said Jeff Kingston, an Asian studies professor at Temple University's Japan Campus who has written extensively about wartime memory in Japan. “No more masochistic history to please the neighbors. Japan is, in a sense, deciding unilaterally to turn the page on history.”

Abe's trip to Yasukuni was given full coverage by the Japanese media, whose helicopters buzzed above the presidential motorcade en route to the site. Abe wore a formal “morning dress,” which includes a long, flowing coat and striped trousers, and stayed for about 15 minutes, according to the Associated Press.

“Some people criticize the visit to Yasukuni as paying homage to war criminals, but the purpose of my visit today, on the anniversary of my administration's taking office, is to report before the souls of the war dead how my administration has worked for one year and to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again,” Abe said.

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