Skip to main content

Japanese Prime Minister Abe visits controversial Yasukuni war shrine

By Ed Payne and Yoko Wakatsuki, CNN
updated 4:31 AM EST, Sat December 28, 2013
Saying he wanted to pray for the souls of the war dead, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo on December 26, 2013. Saying he wanted to pray for the souls of the war dead, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a controversial visit to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo on December 26, 2013.
HIDE CAPTION
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits controversial Yasukuni Shrine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japanese Prime Minister says Japan must never wage war again
  • Past visits by Japanese leaders have ignited a firestorm of controversy
  • Yasukuni Shrine includes 14 criminals from World War II
  • The site was built in 1869

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect reference to an island dispute between Japan and South Korea. The reference has been removed.

Tokyo (CNN) -- A 30-minute visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a controversial shrine that includes the names of convicted war criminals ignited a predictable firestorm of criticism and condemnation Thursday from Japan's neighbors.

The Yasukuni Shrine is regarded by China, North Korea and South Korea as a symbol of Japan's imperial military past. All three countries suffered under Japan's military aggression in World War II. Millions of Chinese civilians and soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of Koreans, died.

So, each time a top Japanese official has visited, the countries have protested -- saying the visits honor war criminals and deny Japan's atrocities in Asia.

Not so, said Abe on Thursday. He wanted to pray for the souls of the war dead, not honor war criminals, he said.

Japan's PM visits controversial shrine

"I have renewed my determination before the souls of the war dead to firmly uphold the pledge never to wage a war again," he said.

There are more than 2.4 million names enshrined at Yasukuni. But among them are 14 who were found guilty of war crimes by a military tribunal in Tokyo in 1945.

Abe's visit came exactly a year after he took office, during which time he has received the cold shoulder from both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye during regional conferences.

It also comes at a time when Japan and China have ratcheted up rhetoric over the ownership of a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

Japan and South Korea also have had their own territorial disputes.

Perhaps to preempt the outrage over his visit, Abe struck a conciliatory tone afterward.

"It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people," he said. "It is my wish to respect each other's character, protect freedom and democracy, and build friendship with China and Korea with respect, as did all the previous Prime Minsiters who visited the Yasukuni Shrine."

It was too little too late.

Japanese Prime Minister Ab visits controversial Yasukuni war shrine

Immediate outrage

The Chinese foreign ministry immediately issued a tersely worded statement, saying Beijing "expresses strongest indignation for this act, which heavily offends the Chinese people and people of other Asian countries that were victims of WWII."

"Honoring the shrine is, in its essence, embellishing and falsely beautifying Japan's military invasion and colonization."

Speaking at a press conference, South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism said that he cannot help but deplore and express anger and urged Japan to stop "beautifying" its invasion.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said it was disappointed by the visit.

"Japan is a valued ally and friend," the embassy said. "Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors."

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Japan's Temple University, said Japan has made its history into an issue when it should be seeking the cooperation of China and South Korea in dealing with the threat North Korea poses.

"Trampling on the neighbors' sensitivities about their shared past also limits room for managing territorial disputes involving both countries or making headway on a range of other pressing issues," he said.

A matter of perspective?

In his statement after the visit, Abe acknowledged that such visits have become a political and diplomatic issue.

But should they be? Depends on the perspective, says J. Berkshire Miller, a fellow on Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum.

The Yasukuni shrine remembers Japan's war dead not just from World War II, but also its war against Imperial Germany during World War I and the Satsuma rebellion in the 19th century.

In October, several officials, including Abe's brother -- senior vice foreign minister Nobuo Kishi -- visited the shrine, according to Kyodo News. The visits were part of an autumn festival and included 159 members of the Diet, Japan's national legislature.

The Prime Minister refrained from visiting the shrine then, but sent an offering.

The lawmakers insisted the visits have been misrepresented by the foreign media and that the shrine is where Japanese visitors go to "pray for peace."

The site, built in 1869, enshrines those who "devoted their lives to their country," the group said at the time.

"The problem for Japan," says Miller, "is that none of this matters to many of its critics."

CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki reported from Tokyo; Ed Payne wrote from Atlanta. CNN's KJ Kwon also contributed from Seoul, South Korea

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Hamas' tactics have changed -- now the group is using commando-like tactics, says CNN's Ben Wedeman.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
CNN's Richard Quest speaks to Malaysia Airlines' Hugh Dunleavy about how the airline industry needs to react to MH17.
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
From Maastricht to Melbourne, and baroque theaters to block-long warehouses, these stores make bookish travelers look stylish.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 2:09 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
A California homeowner's nightmare has become a cautionary tale for those who rent their homes to strangers.
updated 2:57 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
A nun, an AIDS researcher, an athlete and a family traveling on summer vacation. These were some of the victims aboard MH17.
updated 8:21 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Prince George isn't your average one year old. He started walking before he was one. Oh, and, he's going to be king -- of 16 countries.
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Former President Bill Clinton acknowledges he got "very close" to helping achieve peace in the Middle East.
updated 2:21 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
In an ambitious plan to upgrade urban India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he will build 100 "smart cities" across the country.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Inspirational, creepy or just weird? CNN meets the 51-year-old man who dresses like a schoolgirl.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT