Legacy of war in Asia

Japan’s emperor expresses war ‘remorse’ as PM Shinzo Abe sends offering to controversial Yasukuni Shrine

Bitter war memories haunt ties with Beijing and Seoul

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 10:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 9:49pm

Emperor Akihito, in his last appearance as reigning monarch at an annual ceremony marking Japan’s second world war surrender, expressed “deep remorse” over the conflict, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed never to repeat the horrors of war.

Earlier on Wednesday, Abe sent a ritual offering to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, but did not visit in person out of apparent consideration for ties with Seoul and Beijing.

Past visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni have outraged China and South Korea because the shrine honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, along with war dead.

China’s relations with Japan have long been haunted by what Beijing sees as Tokyo’s failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China before and during the second world war, although ties have thawed recently. Japan occupied Korea from 1910-1945 and bitter memories still rankle.

“Thinking of the peaceful times that have extended for many years after the war, reflecting on our past and with a feeling of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” Akihito, wearing morning dress and accompanied by a kimono-clad Empress Michiko, said at the ceremony for war dead.

Akihito, 84, who will abdicate next year, has carved out a role as a symbol of peace, democracy and reconciliation during his three decades on the throne, visiting wartime battlefields to pray for war dead of all nationalities.

His remarks on Wednesday echoed those he first spoke on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, in a subtle departure from previous comments that were seen by many liberals and moderate conservatives as a subtle rebuke to Abe. The prime minister has said future generations of Japanese should not have to keep apologising for the conflict.

On Wednesday, Abe vowed never to repeat the horrors of war.

“I will humbly face the past and resolutely uphold this promise,” he said.

In Beijing, the foreign ministry said, “The Yasukuni Shrine enshrines Class A war criminals who were directly responsible for the war of aggression.

“We firmly oppose the wrong practices of the Japanese side,” the ministry said in a statement.

Separately, a group of about 50 conservative Japanese lawmakers including Shinjiro Koizumi, the popular son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi who is often spoken of as a future premier, paid their respects at Yasukuni.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Masahiko Shibayama, who made the offering at Yasukuni on Abe’s behalf, said the prime minister asked him to pray for the souls of the departed and that Abe regretted being unable to pay his respects in person.

Abe has only visited the shrine in person once since taking office in 2012. His December 2013 visit angered China and South Korea and prompted an expression of disappointment from ally the United States.

Since then, he has sent offerings on August 15 and Yasukuni’s twice-yearly festivals.

The war anniversary comes on the back of a recent thaw in Japan-China relations that have been marred by disputes over territory and history.

The Japanese government hopes Abe will make a trip to China later this year and subsequently for Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan for the first time since assuming his post.

Japan also hopes to step up cooperation with South Korea in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues.

Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japanese fought the war, stopped visiting Yasukuni after the wartime leaders were first honoured by the shrine in 1978, and Akihito does not pay his respects there.

Additional reporting by Kyodo