TOKYO – Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi has sparked outrage in China and South Korea for visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, while popular Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan has drawn ire for his photos at the same site.
Mr Kishi paid his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine on Friday afternoon (Aug 13), hours after minister-in-charge of Covid-19 strategy Yasutoshi Nishimura did so.
Their visits came ahead of Sunday’s 76th anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender declaration. The shrine is seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism as 14 convicted class A war criminals are enshrined among more than 2.4 million war dead commemorated there.
Mr Kishi, the first sitting defence chief to visit the Shinto shrine since then Defence Minister Tomomi Inada in 2016, said he “paid tribute to those who gave their lives fighting for our country” while pledging to renounce war and protect peace.
But Japan’s wartime colonisation of its neighbours remains a political tinderbox in north-east Asia, where wounds are still raw over issues such as the Nanking Massacre in China and the enlistment of comfort women in South Korea.
Tokyo refuses to be drawn into what it terms “apology diplomacy” given its past apologies and reparations, though these are seen by its neighbours as insincere.
At the same time, trepidation is rising over Japan’s military build-up and hawkishness, amid talk of the acquisition of first-strike capabilities and reports that a “drastic” increase in defence spending is on the cards.
Against this controversy, Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan, known for period drama Word Of Honor (2021), was accused of “challenging national dignity” after photos of him at the Yasukuni Shrine taken in 2018 began circulating on social media on Friday.
“As a public figure, he has been deficient in historical knowledge, and completely unaware of the nation’s trauma, which is totally unreasonable,” the state-run People’s Daily said.
More than 20 companies in China, including Coca-Cola, have dropped their partnership with Mr Zhang despite his apology for hurting the feelings of his countrymen and his pledge to “always remember the injuries left by history”.
China has also expressed strong dissatisfaction with Mr Kishi’s visit to the shrine, with Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian saying that it “once again reflects Japan’s wrong attitude towards its history of aggression and its sinister intention to challenge the post-war international order”.
Senior Colonel Wu accused Japan of a smear campaign against Chinese defence policy and military development, interference over Taiwan and provocative acts in the South China Sea.
“A nation will have no future if it cannot face its history,” he said. “Japan must truthfully reflect on its history of aggression, keep in mind historical lessons, take measures to correct its wrongdoings and make good deeds to win trust from its Asian neighbours and the international community.”
This message was also delivered in South Korea, where the Foreign Ministry summoned Mr Naoki Kumagai, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, to lodge a stern protest.
Mr Lee Sang-ryol, director-general for Asia-Pacific affairs, called Mr Kishi’s visit “deplorable” given that the shrine “beautifies Japan’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula”.
South Korea on Saturday also commemorated comfort women memorial day, with President Moon Jae-in calling for the dignity of these former comfort women to be properly restored.
Separately, Mr Nishimura has also been criticised in Japan for his Yasukuni visit, which comes despite his pleas for the public to avoid “non-essential outings” and to refrain from travelling to pay respects at their ancestral graves during the Bon Festival this weekend.
Netizens pointed out the irony as they said the visit was “non-essential”, while the liberal Asahi Shimbun slammed Mr Nishimura for “ignoring his own advice”, as Japan crossed the milestone of 20,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day on Friday, just 15 days after it first hit 10,000 cases in one day.
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