Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, sent a ritual offering to a controversial war shrine on Monday – the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the second world war – as one of its wartime victims, South Korea, called for an end to historical tensions.
Kishida apparently decided to stay away from Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to avoid antagonising South Korea and China, but two of his ministers have made the pilgrimage in recent days.
Yasukuni visits by conservative Japanese politicians have traditionally drawn condemnation from South Korea and China, which view the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism.
The shrine honours 2.5 million Japanese soldiers and civilians who have died in wars since the second half of the 19th century, including 14 men convicted by the allies as class-A war criminals.
The public broadcaster NHK showed Sanae Takaichi, an ultra-conservative who was appointed economic security minister last week, visiting Yasukuni on Monday morning, days after Yasutoshi Nishimura, the trade and industry minister. Koichi Hagiuda, the policy head of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP), visited earlier on Monday.
South Korea’s foreign ministry voiced “deep disappointment and regret” at Nishimura’s visit, saying Yasukuni “glorifies Japan’s past war of aggression and enshrines war criminals”.
South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol, used the 77th anniversary of Japan’s defeat and the country’s liberation from Japanese colonialism to call for an improvement in bilateral ties.
Yoon, a conservative who took office this year vowing to repair ties with Japan, said the countries must overcome their historical disputes and work together to counter the regional security threat from North Korea.
“When Korea-Japan relations move towards a common future and when the mission of our times align, based on our shared universal values, it will also help us solve the historical problems,” he said at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the end of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
With denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea at a standstill, Yoon promised the North an ambitious aid package if the regime in Pyongyang committed to “genuine and substantive” progress in dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
“We will implement a large-scale food program, provide assistance for power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure, and carry out projects to modernise ports and airports for international trade,” he said.
Relations between Japan and South Korea have deteriorated dramatically in recent years over disputes stemming from their bitter wartime legacy, including the use of forced labour and the sexual enslavement of Korean girls and women by the Japanese imperial army.
Kishida, who is regarded as belonging to the LDP’s more liberal wing, must walk a fine line between improving relations with Seoul and Beijing and appeasing right-wingers in his own party, including those close to Shinzo Abe, the hawkish former prime minister who was murdered last month.
A poll by the Kyodo news agency found that more than 100 Japanese MPs have had connections with the church – whose members are colloquially known as Moonies – with 80% of them belonging to the LDP.
The suspect in Abe’s shooting has reportedly told police that he had targeted him over his links to the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.
In a cabinet reshuffle last week, Kishida removed several ministers who had disclosed their ties with the Unification church, but media reports said seven of his new ministers, along with 20 other senior officials, had also had connections with the organisation.
The chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, defended politicians’ visits to Yasukuni. “It is natural for any country to pay respect to those who gave their lives for their country,” he said on Monday. “Japan will continue to strengthen its relations with its neighbours, including China and South Korea.”
Kishida has avoided visiting Yasukuni in person on the war anniversary and while he was a cabinet minister and LDP official, but has sent offerings to the two shrine festivals to have been held there since he took office last October.
Abe was the last prime minister in recent memory to visit Yasukuni while in office, in 2013 – a move that outraged China and South Korea and even drew a rebuke from the US.
The Yushukan museum, located next to the shrine, promotes the belief that Japan went to war to save Asia from western imperialism. The museum makes no mention of Japanese wartime atrocities committed in Asia, such as the 1937 Rape of Nanking.