Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to refrain from visiting war-related Yasukuni Shrine on Friday, the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, informed sources said.
He is apparently hoping to signal to China that he is eager to finally hold his first summit with President Xi Jinping and improve relations between the two countries.
The Shinto shrine in Tokyo, which honors Class-A war criminals alongside Japan’s war dead, has long been a source of tension between Japan and China, which regards it as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, as does South Korea.
Abe visited the shrine last December, provoking a fierce backlash from Beijing and Seoul, while also disappointing the United States.
Despite the lingering bilateral tension, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, met in Myanmar on Saturday, the first meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers since the Abe administration was launched in December 2012.
The Kishida-Wang talks took place on the sidelines of a series of meetings related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The bilateral meeting was described as a “step forward” by an Abe aide.
Earlier on Saturday, Kishida stopped short of criticizing China over its provocative behavior in the South China Sea at a foreign ministers’ meeting among ASEAN, Japan, China and South Korea.
Kishida’s restraint can be taken as the Japanese side attempting to show maximum consideration for China, after Japan has constantly backed the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China.
Also at the center of the strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing are the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China.
Abe has continued to criticize China for provocations around the islands. Recently, however, he has toned down the rhetoric, apparently aiming to demonstrate his intention to mend fences with China.
“It is important for Japan and China to continue efforts in a calm atmosphere,” Abe said at a news conference in Hiroshima last week, suggesting that he is seeking to have a meeting with Xi, who took office in March 2013, on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Beijing in November.
As preconditions for a summit, China is demanding that Japan officially recognize that there is a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, and then agree to shelve the issue.
But Abe appears adamant on refusing the Chinese demand. Japan’s official position is that the Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of its territory and therefore no territorial row exists.
While Abe is expected to refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine on Friday, some members of his Cabinet, including National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya, are set to go there.
Mending fences with China is “not going be easy,” a source close to Abe said.