TOKYO // Visits by cabinet ministers and MPs to a shrine honouring Japan's war dead, including 14 World War II leaders convicted of atrocities, signal prime minister Shinzo Abe's determination to pursue a more nationalist agenda after months of focusing on the economy.
Nearly 170 Japanese parliamentarians paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine yesterday. A day earlier, visits by three cabinet ministers, said by the government to be unofficial, drew protests from neighbours South Korea and China over actions they view as failures to acknowledge Japan's militaristic past.
China and South Korea – Japan's No 1 and No 3 trading partners respectively – bore the brunt of Tokyo's pre-1945 militarist expansion in Asia and routinely criticise visits to the shrine. Almost seven decades after the war ended, it still overshadows relations.
Adding to the discord, Chinese surveillance vessels were patrolling Tuesday near a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both countries.
China's State Oceanic Administration said yesterday that its maritime surveillance ships had chased away a group of Japanese ultranationalists who visited the area.
The Japanese government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said the intrusion by eight Chinese vessels into Japan's territorial waters was "unacceptable" and that Tokyo had lodged formal protests with the Chinese government. The nationalist group that China accused of attempting to land on the islands could not be immediately reached.
Mr Abe told parliament yesterday that if Chinese citizens were to land on the islands, Japan would forcibly remove them.
"Naturally, we will forcibly expel the Chinese if they were to make a landing. I should make that clear," Mr Abe said in response to a question from an MP on his commitment to defending the island.
But he also said Japan's relations with China are among the most important bilateral relations in the world, and their economies are inseparable.
"It is wrong for China to take provocative actions or totally cut ties just because there is a problem," he said. "Our door for dialogue is always open."
Over the weekend, Mr Abe did not visit Yasukuni but instead donated ceremonial ornaments marked "prime minister" to the shrine, whose compound has a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past.
If Mr Abe was attempting to avoid pointed responses from Japan's neighbours by not visiting the shrine himself, he was unsuccessful.
"The way they recognise history and treat the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine is an important criterion, based on which their close neighbours in Asia and the global community will watch and learn what road Japan will take in the future," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young urged "deep soul-searching" by Japan to discover how such visits are seen in neighbouring countries.
"Yasukuni Shrine is a place to ... glorify wars," he said.