U.S. military leaders in Japan advised against a planned visit by some of their troops to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in early April, before President Barack Obama’s visit to Tokyo, apparently out of consideration to South Korea and China, an American military source said Saturday.
U.S. 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 honors past Japanese leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals, along with millions of war dead. Beijing and Seoul consider it a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and wartime aggression and bristle when Japanese politicians make state visits viewed as glorifying the war.
“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 organizer elected to cancel the visit,” a public affairs officer for the U.S. forces told Kyodo News in an email.
Separately, a U.S. serviceman who had previously visited the shrine with a member of the Self-Defense 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 Shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last December sparked strong criticism from South Korea and China, as well as a soft but rare rebuke from the United States, which expressed “disappointment.” Abe’s visit jacked up tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
The U.S. 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 neighboring countries as implicit approval of Abe’s stance on wartime history, which some consider to be revisionist.
According to sources, U.S. military personnel have visited Yasukuni to pray and sightsee at the Shinto shrine for many years, though no written records of the visits are made public.
According to newsletters for supporters of the shrine, 25 members of a helicopter unit at the U.S. Navy’s Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture went to view the shrine in 2005, while the commander of the naval air facility did so in 2009.