With geopolitical tensions running high in the Asia-Pacific region, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a controversial ritual offering to Tokyo's equally contentious Yasukuni Shrine. Julian Ryall reports.
Against a backdrop of growing geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, the Japanese prime minister and Emperor Akihito on Monday marked the 71st anniversary of the nation's surrender at the end of World War II with renewed commitments to peace.
Speaking at a commemorative event at the Nippon Budokan Hall in central Tokyo attended by some 5,000 relatives of Japan's war dead, Prime Minister Abe vowed that the nation would never again repeat the horrors of war. "We will contribute to world peace and prosperity by humbly facing history," Abe said, adding that he intends to "open a way to the future that is full of hope."
The prime minister avoided mentioning Japan's invasions and brutal occupations of large parts of mainland Asia and Pacific nations in the early decades of the last century, however, with China quick to seize on the perceived slight. Abe "shied away from mentioning Japan's wartime aggression or the suffering Japan inflicted upon other countries before and during World War II," China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
No mention of 'reflection'
"This is the fourth consecutive year for Abe to fail to mention 'reflection' at the annual memorial service," Xinhua commented. "It raised increasing concerns over Japan's possible shifting away from a pacifist stance, with the newly enacted security laws allowing Japan's self-defense forces to fight wars abroad and Abe attempting to revise Japan's pacifist constitution."
Abe sent a sacred tree branch as an offering to the Yasukuni military shrine to mark the 71st anniversary of the end of WWII
An aide to the prime minister also visited nearby Yasukuni Shrine earlier in the day to make a ritual offering on Abe's behalf, while a number of members of his cabinet - including Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa and Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi - visited the controversial shrine to pay their respects to the nation's war dead.
Yasukuni is considered the last resting place of more than 2.46 million Japanese who died during the nation's wars since the mid-1800s. Controversy surrounds the fact that more than 1,000 of that total were convicted of war crimes during World War II and 14 were condemned to death by the Allies as Class-A war criminals, guilty of "crimes against peace."
A minute's silence
Abe and the emperor spoke shortly before the traditional minute's silence at midday, the moment when Emperor Hirohito, the current emperor's father, addressed the Japanese people over the radio in 1945 to urge them to "endure the unendurable" and to inform them that Japan was surrendering.
At Yasukuni, thousands of people paying their respects stopped and bowed as the emperor's words were relayed over loudspeakers. A bugle sounded at the end of his speech.
Inevitably, there were fewer veterans attending this year's event, with only a small number of old soldiers queuing up to bow and clap their hands together in prayer in front of the shinto shrine's "haiden," or hall of worship.
Instead, there seemed to be more right-wing groups, most affecting a quasi-uniform of overalls bearing militaristic insignia, rising sun badges and long boots. Others were wearing the wartime uniforms of officers, regular soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Offerings of beer, water and flowers have been left in front of the life-size statue of a pilot that is dedicated to the men of the kamikaze squadrons, while origami folded paper cranes have been left before the statue for the widows and children of the dead servicemen.
Toru Kawamoto, a 57-year-old engineer from Osaka, was standing with a knot of 30-something men wearing the uniforms of infantrymen of the 1930s Imperial Japanese Army, although the bayonets and rifles are dummies.
Instead of wearing a Japanese uniform, however, Kawamoto is wearing the field grey of the German army in World War II, including a badge with a silver eagle holding a swastika emblem above his chest pocket. He says he knows it is illegal to display the swastika in Germany, but that it is not banned in Japan.
"I am here to remember our comrades, our wartime allies in Germany," Kawamoto told DW.
Kawamoto says he feels Prime Minister Abe should defy international pressure to pay his respects at Yasukuni each year. "I know it is difficult for him because of the intimidation from China and South Korea but I believe - and everyone here believes - that the prime minister should be here on August 15 each year," he said.