U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid flowers Thursday at Chidorigafuchi, the cemetery in Tokyo for the remains of unidentified Japanese who died overseas during World War II, in an apparent attempt to nudge Japan away from lionizing Yasukuni Shrine.
Kerry and Hagel became the most senior foreign dignitaries to pay their respects at Chidorigafuchi since the Argentine president in 1979, a cemetery official said.
Another official said the visit was initiated by the U.S. and not the result of a Japanese invitation.
U.S. defense officials said the cemetery near the Imperial Palace is Japan’s “closest equivalent” to Arlington National Cemetery, the massive military graveyard across the Potomac River from Washington.
That view contradicts that of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has likened Yasukuni, where 14 Class-A war criminals are among the 2.5 million enshrined, to Arlington.
During a visit to the United States in May, he told Foreign Affairs magazine that the shrine, seen across East Asia as a symbol of Japan’s militarism, is a tribute to those “who lost their lives in the service of their country.”
“I think it’s quite natural for a Japanese leader to offer prayers for those who sacrificed their lives for their country, and I think this is no different from what other world leaders do,” he said.
Abe, who was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007, has stayed away from the shrine so far.
Around 100 lawmakers, including three Cabinet ministers, went to the shrine on Aug. 15 this year, drawing angry denunciations by China and South Korea. Abe sent an offering with an aide.
Unlike Arlington, Yasukuni’s caretakers promote a view of history that is contentious even at home, with the accompanying Yushukan museum staunchly defending much of Japan’s wartime record.
A U.S. official told media Kerry and Hagel were paying tribute at Chidorigafuchi in the same way that “Japanese defense ministers regularly lay wreaths at Arlington.”
“This memorial is the closest equivalent. It honors Japanese soldiers, civilians and support personnel killed on World War II battlefields, but whose remains were never recovered by their families. It is a gesture of reconciliation and respect,” the official said.
Seki Tomoda, an expert on international politics and diplomacy, said the visit could be Washington’s attempt to help East Asia overcome the obstacle caused by the Yasukuni issue, by conferring legitimacy and respectability on Chidorigafuchi.