TOKYO — Seven decades after it ended, World War II still cuts through the conscience and politics of Asia.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalistic fervor and penchant for revisionism, as well a visit to a controversial World War II shrine, anger neighbors China and South Korea. And they alarm the Obama administration, which wants its two closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, to provide a united front to counter North Korean aggression.
President Barack Obama last month orchestrated the first-ever meeting between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, ostensibly to talk about their common antagonist: North Korea.
Yet two days before Obama arrived in Japan on this week’s trip to Asia, Abe stirred emotions anew when he had a small gift delivered to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 war criminals.
The fealty to the shrine and Abe’s past interest in revisiting a Japanese apology for forcing South Korean women to work in wartime brothels are complicating Obama’s efforts to focus on Asia.
“The notion is that America is going to re-balance in favor of Asia, but the parties have to do more, as well, and Abe’s jingoistic gestures threaten to make cooperation on anything a non-starter,” said Jeffrey Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Washington has been trying to knock heads together with the thinking that we can’t hold security issues hostage to history.”
Park said Friday at a news conference with Obama that she’s waiting for Abe to deliver on his agreement for high-level talks to address the issue of South Korea’s “comfort women” before she works with him.
“It’s very important we come up with truthful efforts for these victims, because if we let go of this, we won’t be able to do anything about the victims,” said Park, who’s seeking compensation for the 55 women still living.
Obama, who flew to Seoul after two nights in Tokyo, called the treatment of the women a “terrible, egregious violation of human rights,” but said he was convinced that Abe and Japan “recognize that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly.”
Abe said at his own news conference with Obama that he’d visited a memorial at the shrine that honors all war dead so that “never again people would suffer in wars.”
Analysts say he thinks Japan has a 70-year record of peace to be proud of and is tired of having its reputation tarnished by its wartime activities.
But The Japan Times chastised Abe this week for the shrine controversy with an editorial titled, “When will Abe learn?”
The newspaper warned that Abe’s action would be interpreted “as evidence that he supports the role the shrine played during Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s and that the prime minister is making light of Japan’s aggression against other Asian countries during the period.”
It noted that Abe has said any leader would want to pay tribute to its soldiers but that he ignores the shrine’s history as a “wartime state ideological apparatus to mobilize the Japanese for war.”
South Korea and China have long memories about Japanese atrocities during the war, and analysts say China seizes on Abe’s actions to paint him as a dangerous provocateur.
That’s despite the fact that Japan spends just 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and its military budget has remained relatively stagnant for two decades. China has the second highest level of defense spending in the world, after the U.S.
The U.S. embraces Abe’s economic plan, and he’s helped broker a deal for a new U.S. military base on Okinawa. But he’s never escaped the shadow of his grandfather, a former prime minister who was detained as a war criminal but released.
“It’s part of him,” said Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based research associate for the MIT Center for International Studies. Cucek said he thought the shrine was an “abomination” but that Abe should be able to pay his respects.
“We really should not ask people to betray themselves as a condition of being a partner,” he said.
Most Japanese do not share Abe’s enthusiasm for reopening the record on their nation’s confrontational past.
The shrine and its gardens in downtown Tokyo are popular with residents and tourists alike. Guidebooks tread delicately on the shrine’s controversial roots, noting its checkered past and a history museum that some say handles Japan’s military past lightly but touting its cherry trees and the towering Shinto-style gate at the entrance, the tallest in Japan.
Tomomi Fujimara, 32, who was visiting the shrine Friday with her husband and sister, said it remained a place to pay respect to those who fought during World War II, including her grandfather, who served on a battleship.
“It’s unfortunate to see it always talked about as political,” said Fujimara, who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in Oregon. “Today I am honored to be here, and Prime Minister Abe should be able to visit it just like anyone else.”
Abe wasn’t the only visitor sparking controversy. Pop heartthrob Justin Bieber set off a virtual firestorm in China and South Korea this week when he posted to Instagram a picture of himself at the shrine.
“While in Japan I asked my driver to pull over for which I saw a beautiful shrine,” Bieber later wrote. “I was mislead to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer. To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry. I love you China and I love you Japan.”
The complex crosscurrents at play underscore the delicate nature of Obama’s attempts to forge alliances in the region and illustrate how fragmented Asia remains decades after World War II, said Charles Morrison, the president of the Hawaii-based East-West Center, an independent, U.S.-government funded center that promotes better relations among the United States, Asia and the Pacific.
“A lot of these issues, instead of going away after 70 years, seem to be getting worse,” Morrison said. “It’s very frustrating for American leaders who want allies to build constructive relationships with each other.”