U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly an hour trying to persuade Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, two weeks before a trip there sparked a furor in Asia, diplomatic sources said.
Abe visited the Shinto shrine, where convicted wartime leaders are honored along with war dead, on Dec. 26, triggering fierce criticism from China and South Korea, and leading Washington to express disappointment at his decision in an unusually explicit manner.
With U.S. President Barack Obama expected to visit in April for talks with Abe, the rising tensions between Japan and the two neighboring nations will likely be high on the agenda. The turmoil, which undermines American interests in the region, could dash Abe’s hopes of boosting Japan’s U.S. security alliance.
In a Dec. 12 telephone call with Abe, Biden repeatedly urged him to refrain from visiting the Tokyo shrine, while revealing that he had asked South Korean President Park Geun-hye to take more steps to improve relations with Japan, the sources said.
Biden visited Japan, China and South Korea in early December. The nearly one-hour phone conversation, which took place after Biden returned to Washington, was intended to brief Abe on what he had discussed with South Korean and Chinese leaders during the trip.
Abe declined Biden’s pleas by saying, “I will decide by myself whether I will go, according to one of the sources.
During the tense conversation, Abe did not provide an assurance he would avoid visiting the shrine, and Biden finally gave up, saying he would leave the decision to the prime minister, the sources added.
That part of the conversation was not revealed when Japanese officials held a press briefing in Tokyo shortly after the telephone conversation.
After Abe visited Yasukuni two weeks later, he said he wanted to pray for the souls of those who died in the war, adding that he never meant to hurt the feelings of people in countries that suffered under Japanese wartime aggression.
China and South Korea, as well as other parts of Asia, slammed Abe for being insensitive about their feelings about Japan’s wartime aggression, further straining relations already soured over bitter territorial disputes and differing perceptions of history.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo released a statement immediately after Abe’s shrine visit, saying the move had “disappointed” Washington. The U.S. State Department issued the same statement. The unexpectedly harsh tone surprised many officials in Tokyo.
While a senior Foreign Ministry official said, “Japan and the United States are allied and there is no concern,” a different source close to bilateral relations said the U.S. statement “can be taken as representing the vice president’s own feelings.”