US military leaders in Japan advised against a planned visit by some of their troops to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in early April, before US President Barack Obama’s visit to the Japanese capital, apparently out of consideration to South Korea and China, a US military source said on Saturday.
US Forces Japan headquarters warned against the visit to the controversial shrine by more than 20 troops, leading to the trip’s cancellation, according to the source.
The Shinto shrine honours past Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals, along with millions of war dead. Beijing and Seoul see it as a symbol of Tokyo’s past militarism and wartime aggression.
“USFJ did not instruct or otherwise order the group to not visit the shrine in April, but did offer some advice that the timing of their scheduled visit was not ideal. As such, the trip organiser elected to cancel the visit,” a USFJ public affairs officer said.
Separately, a US serviceman who had previously visited the shrine with a member of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces declined to do so again after the warning, the source said.
Obama toured Asia in late April as part of his renewed focus on the region. The trip was partly aimed at mending ties between Japan and South Korea that had been frayed by differing perceptions of wartime history and a territorial dispute.
A trip to Yasukuni by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last December sparked strong criticism from South Korea and China. The United States also expressed “disappointment” at his visit, which escalated tensions between Japan and its neighbours.
The US military was likely concerned that a trip to the shrine by its troops around the time of Obama’s visit would be seen by Japan’s neighbouring countries as implicit approval of Abe’s view of wartime history, which some consider to be revisionist.
According to newsletters for supporters of the shrine, 25 members of a helicopter unit at the US Navy’s Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, and the commander of the naval air facility visited Yasukuni in 2005 and 2009, respectively.