BEIJING – Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a conservative politician who died Friday at the age of 101, is recognized in China as the leader who helped usher in a so-called honeymoon-like period in bilateral relations with Japan in the 1980s.
In 1985, however, he made an official state visit as prime minister to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where convicted Class-A war criminals are honored along with millions of war dead, sparking a controversy between the nations.
Nakasone, who was prime minister from November 1982 to November 1987, was known for building a solid relationship of trust with the late Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of China’s Communist Party.
Later Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news conference in Beijing that Nakasone was “enthusiastic about friendly exchanges and pragmatic cooperation with China during his lifetime.”
Nevertheless, his official visit to Yasukuni on Aug. 15, 1985 — the 40th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II — triggered anti-Japan demonstrations in China, backing Hu, who had adopted a pro-Japanese attitude, into a corner.
Hu was eventually fired as general secretary in 1987. Since then, many Chinese political leaders, including President Xi Jinping, have been inclined to take a hard-line stance against Japan, foreign affairs experts say.
In South Korea, meanwhile, Nakasone is branded as a conservative lawmaker by some anti-Japanese groups in light of the official shrine visit.
But Nakasone became the first sitting prime minister to visit South Korea since Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula ended in 1945 and made efforts to improve Tokyo-Seoul relations.
Among South Korea’s conservatives, who emphasize relations with Japan, Nakasone is touted as the “representative of pro-South Korea politicians.”
Aside from Asia, Nakasone was best known for his efforts to strengthen bilateral ties with the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday extended his “deepest condolences,” calling Nakasone a “courageous leader.”
“I, and the people of the United States, will long remember Prime Minister Nakasone’s warm friendship and immeasurable contribution to U.S.-Japan relations, as well as his inspiring dedication to his country and the region,” Pompeo said.