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Don't let ministers' Yasukuni visits become thorn in diplomatic relations
Publication Date : 25-04-2013
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se's response must have been unexpected for the Japanese government.
Yun cancelled a trip to Japan that was scheduled for Friday and Saturday. This was a protest against visits by three Cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The South Korean Foreign Ministry says the Shinto shrine "glorifies Japan's wars of aggression".
A trilateral meeting between leaders from Japan, China and South Korea, which was originally scheduled for late May, will likely be postponed due to China's unwillingness to participate. South Korea, chair of the meeting, intended for Yun's visit to help create an environment conducive to holding the talks.
Yun's visit also was expected to provide a golden opportunity for Japan and South Korea to continue their close cooperation in dealing with North Korea's nuclear and missile issues, over which tensions have recently risen. It was also designed to improve the bilateral relationship under South Korean President Park Geun Hye, after ties became strained due to such factors as former President Lee Myung Bak's visit to the Takeshima islands last year.
All this makes the cancellation of Yun's visit to Japan very regrettable.
Nagging questions remain about South Korea's diplomatic approach. Although then South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun cancelled a visit to Japan in protest after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine, Seoul has never made Yasukuni visits by Cabinet ministers a diplomatic issue to such a serious degree before.
A matter for Japanese to decide
On issues concerning the perception of history, the Japanese government said: "Each country has its own stance on different issues. We should not let these matters affect diplomatic relations." We agree entirely.
How Japanese mourn the war dead is not something that other countries can give orders on. Both Japan and South Korea must make efforts not to let differences in their position on this issue affect overall diplomatic relations.
Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said visits to Yasukuni Shrine are "a matter of the heart." Suga indicated that the government does not particularly regard Yasukuni visits by Cabinet ministers, including Aso, as a problem.
Ties have been harmed
However, it cannot be denied that the Yasukuni visits by Aso and other ministers have adversely affected Tokyo-Seoul relations. In politics and diplomacy, results are always important and "a matter of the heart" should not be trotted out as an excuse. Shouldn't Aso have been more careful about visiting the shrine while he is deputy prime minister, a key Cabinet post?
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it was "extremely regrettable" that he could not visit the shrine during the tenure of his first Cabinet several years ago. We hope Abe will handle government affairs with the utmost care so historical issues will not negatively affect diplomatic ties.
Amid the tense relationship between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, improving Japan-South Korea ties must be the top priority for Abe's diplomacy.
The crux of the problem over Yasukuni visits is the fact that "Class-A war criminals", including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who was executed following his conviction by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Tribunal, are enshrined along with Japan's war dead. There has been severe criticism of the Japanese leaders who led the nation to war, not only from South Korea and China but also from Japan.
The government should resume discussions on the construction of a new national facility where everybody can pay homage to the war dead without resentment or awkwardness.