HONG KONG — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped up a war of words with China, alleging an international campaign to taint Japan's image by focusing on past militarism rather than decades of peace since World War II.
"There's propaganda to depict Japan in a way that's far from the truth," Abe said in Parliament Friday in Tokyo. "There is danger emerging, where such propaganda will have a huge influence on our children's generation. I would like to think of a strong public relations strategy going forward."
While he did not reference China directly, the comments follow a period of escalated tensions and name calling between the two countries. His remarks came days after China announced national days to commemorate Japan's war defeat and a massacre in Nanjing by Japanese troops in 1937. Last month China opened a museum to honor Ahn Joong Geun, a South Korean nationalist who assassinated then-Japanese Resident General of Korea Hirobumi Ito in 1909. China's official People's Daily unveiled an online game where users can shoot Japanese war criminals.
For China and South Korea, the legacy of Japan's occupation before and during the war continues to infuse popular thinking and government policy. A recent pickup in revisionist rhetoric by some of Abe's nationalist allies, plus his December visit to a Tokyo shrine honoring Japan's war dead, is fueling the backlash even as China's military assertiveness in the region raises concerns about President Xi Jinping's own aspirations.
Xi and South Korea's Park Geun Hye have refused to meet with Abe, citing friction over Japan's take on its role in history. Park is scheduled to deliver a speech tomorrow to mark the anniversary of a 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule. The tension threatens to hurt trade among East Asia's three biggest economies and complicates efforts to defuse territorial disputes that have raised military frictions.
"A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Japanese militarism will not be erased," China's official Xinhua News Agency wrote Thursday in an editorial. "If Japan continues to turn a deaf ear to the call of peace and warning bells against its militarist past, it will have no place in the world."
For Japan's part, the government has revised school teaching manuals to emphasize its claims over islands disputed with China and South Korea. In his first press conference in January, Katsuto Momii, the Abe-appointed head of national broadcaster NHK, said the military's wartime use of sex slaves, known as comfort women, shouldn't be judged by "today's morality."
"While it is true that politicians in other East Asian states often play on anti-Japanese sentiments for their own domestic political ends, Japanese public figures provide them with plenty of ammunition," said Tina Burrett, associate professor of political science at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "Shinzo Abe's own frequent use of nationalist rhetoric and insensitive framing of World War II history does not help Japan's image abroad."
Abe drew criticism from the U.S. alongside China and South Korea for his Dec. 26 visit to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined among other war dead. That visit came weeks after China declared an air defense identification zone over much of the East China Sea covering the islands disputed with Japan. He has also pushed to loosen Japan's pacifist constitution to allow a strengthening of the military.
"Emotional friction is inevitable if Japan continues acts that appear to justify its past aggression" such as the shrine visit, Lee Won Deog, a professor of Japan studies at Seoul's Kookmin University, said by phone. "Wouldn't that make Koreans feel bitter who were forced into the imperial army during World War Two and made to fight alongside Japanese soldiers who vowed to reunite at Yasukuni as souls if they died?"
South Koreans have been active in taking their campaign abroad. In Virginia the state legislature, lobbied by Korean Americans, passed a measure requiring new school textbooks to note the Sea of Japan is referred to as the East Sea by Korea, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Local officials in Glendale, California and Palisades Park, New Jersey faced protests from Japanese Americans after erecting a statue and a plaque respectively to commemorate Korean comfort women, according to the Glendale News-Press.
The tensions also pose a bigger problem for the U.S. by creating a wedge between its two biggest allies in the region — Japan and South Korea — as it pivots to Asia partly to check China's growing economic and military muscle.
The U.S. maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea and about 38,000 in Japan, and has framed the two countries as natural partners in the region.