China and South Korea responded with outrage after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit to a controversial shrine on the first anniversary of his return to power – a day that happened to coincide with the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong.
With local television carrying live coverage, Mr. Abe's 15-minute visit to the Yasukuni Shrine marked the first return to the site by a sitting Japanese prime minister since 2006. The Tokyo Shinto shrine, opened in the late 1800s, honours millions of Japan's war dead, including more than a dozen convicted war criminals.
To China and South Korea, both victims of Japan's 20th-century military aggression, official visits to the site are a reminder of the country's martial past, and serve to further inflame long-festering wounds. Mr. Abe's government has struck an increasingly nationalistic posture and and has, in past years, sent a series of senior officials to the shrine, including the Prime Minister's own brother, the senior vice foreign minister.
Within hours of the visit, China's state-run Xinhua news agency warned that the "provocative move would drag Japan's already-fragile relations with neighbouring countries into an abyss."
South Korea called it "deplorable and outrageous," while the U.S. Embassy in Japan, in a statement, said it "is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbours."
In recent weeks, the normally tense relations between Japan and China, in particular, have been further exacerbated by the unilateral establishment of a Chinese air defence identification zone over islands whose ownership Beijing and Tokyo both claim. Amid loud Japanese protests, China issued sabre-rattling statements, including one state-media proclamation that "maybe an imminent conflict will be waged between China and Japan."
Against that backdrop, Mr. Abe's attempts at soothing words were unlikely to accomplish much. Following the visit, he declared himself there to honour the dead, and to "pledge and determine that never again will people suffer in war. … I have no intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese or Korean people."
The Japanese prime minister's office sought to call the visit personal in nature, rather than official. But to the outside world, the distinction carried little meaning. The visit is likely to have a particularly adverse effect on the U.S., which has sought to curry better relations between Japan and Korea as a bulwark against China.
For Japan, the consequences may be more immediate. Jun Okumura, a counselor at Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm, wrote in an Internet posting that Japanese business interests in China will likely be hurt, while China may respond by dispatching vessels into Japan's territorial waters. It could nonetheless serve Mr. Abe well politically: his "cabinet will rise in the polls as a consequence," Mr. Okumura wrote.
There's an argument to be made, too, that the visit will help Mr. Abe reassert his conservative credentials and consolidate support around his economic reform plans, elements of which he has struggled to set in place.
More likely, though, he simply wanted to go.
"We may think it's ridiculous or dreadful, but he really believes in the Yasukuni view of history," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. That view – which suggests Japan's military actions in the 1930s and 1940s were defensive and defensible; and that Japanese invasions in Asia, for all the killing they engendered, helped liberate parts of the continent by expelling European colonialists – is controversial, and runs counter to many modern readings of history, both inside and outside Japan.
But to Mr. Abe, "going to Yasukuni is like Christians going to Christian mass or Muslims going to pilgrimage at the Hajj. It's something that has emotional meaning," Mr. Dujarric said.
In China, meanwhile, social media users found parallels between Chinese leaders congregating at Beijing's Great Hall of the People to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Mao's birthday and Abe's shrine visit, both on the same day. "One side is bowing to Mao in the memorial hall, while the other side is bowing to the ghosts of the shrine. National sentiment is built up in this way," wrote user mangmang on Sina Weibo.
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, urged a "mature" response from China, which is growing increasingly confident in the way its global status has eclipsed Japan. As for Mr. Abe, Mr. Hu urged: "Ignore this clown."