A day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeated during his historic visit to Pearl Harbor that Japan would never again wage war, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada raised eyebrows by paying a visit to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday.
The move immediately drew protests from China and South Korea, former victims of Japan who regard the Shinto site as a symbol of Japan’s fervent militarism from the 1930s and 40s. The shrine honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.
The visit is controversial because Inada, once a frequent visitor to Yasukuni, is widely regarded as a historical revisionist and an ardent defender of the wars Japan has waged. It was her first visit to the politically sensitive shrine since she became defense minister on Aug. 3.
In an apparent effort to avoid controversy, Inada skipped her regular visit on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, and flew to Djibouti instead to inspect the Self-Defense Forces contingent stationed there.
Facing reporters at Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, Inada said her visit was intended to pay tribute to “those who dedicated their lives to their country” in war.
“This year the president of the country which dropped an atomic bomb visited Hiroshima, and yesterday Prime Minister Abe visited Pearl Harbor and offered words to pay condolences” to the war dead, Inada said, referring to Obama’s May visit to Hiroshima.
“I paid a visit (to Yasukuni) with my determination to build up peace for Japan and the world with a future-oriented perspective,” Inada said in a video clip aired on NHK.
“Whatever historical view one may have, whether they are an enemy or ally, I believe people in any country would understand the act of paying tribute and expressing appreciation for those who dedicated their lives to their country,” she added.
According to Kyodo News, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry immediately released a statement criticizing Inada and calling her visit “deplorable.” Chinese media outlets were also critical.
Yasukuni honors the souls of 2.46 million people, mainly Japanese soldiers. Among them are 12 convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, and another two suspects who died in detention.
Many supporters of the shrine are right-leaning nationalists who defend Japan’s offensives against China and the West. Inada is considered among them, although she has pledged in public to uphold the government’s official apology statements on World War II as defense chief.
In December 2013, Abe made a visit to Yasukuni Shrine that drew protests from China, South Korea and even the United States. He has since refrained from visiting in public.
Abe, Inada and other lawmakers who have visited the shrine have all emphasized that they did so to commemorate those who were killed, not to justify the acts of war criminals.
Still, visits by Cabinet ministers have created controversies throughout the postwar era.
Before becoming defense chief, Inada was policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and often visited the shrine. But shortly before Aug. 15 this year, she abruptly announced the plan to go to Djibouti.
The trip was widely seen as a pretext to avoid visiting Yasukuni on the sensitive war anniversary, which would cause a political row. In an apparent expression of regret for that, Inada was nearly brought to tears during a Lower House session on Sept. 30 when opposition lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto grilled her about the Africa trip and the Yasukuni issues.
Critics at the time said the emotional display showed that Inada was not qualified to be defense minister, and the fallout hurt her standing at a time when she was widely regarded as a future candidate to become prime minister.