Japan PM Abe prays at controversial war shrine, a move certain to anger China, South Korea

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arriving at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to pay tribute to the war dead, in Tokyo on Dec 26, 2013. Mr Abe prayed at Yasukuni - which enshrines a few million of Japan's war dead as well as 14 Class A war criminal
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arriving at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to pay tribute to the war dead, in Tokyo on Dec 26, 2013. Mr Abe prayed at Yasukuni - which enshrines a few million of Japan's war dead as well as 14 Class A war criminals - just before noon (11am Singapore time), a move guaranteed to cause another diplomatic flap with China and South Korea. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prayed at the controversial Yasukuni war shrine just before noon (11am Singapore time) in central Tokyo today, a move guaranteed to cause another diplomatic flap with China and South Korea.

The visit was telecast live on national television.

The Japanese leader arrived at the shrine dressed in formal "morning dress" consisting of a black morning coat, grey striped trousers and silver tie, and was greeted by some shrine visitors waving paper Japanese flags.

It is the first time in seven years that an incumbent Japanese premier has prayed at Yasukuni. The last leader to do so was then premier Junichiro Koizumi on Aug 15, 2006, shortly before he left office.

The visit to Yasukuni, which enshrines a few million of Japan's war dead as well as 14 Class A war criminals, is expected to inflame already-tense relations with China and South Korea.

Mr Abe's decision to pray at the shrine today is significant as it marks the first anniversary of the formation of the Abe Cabinet.

The Yasukuni visit fulfils Mr Abe's desire to make annual visits to the shrine as prime minister.

Mr Abe had previously expressed "extreme regret" at not having gone to Yasukuni during his first stint as prime minister from 2006-2007. He said it was only natural to pray for the souls of those that had sacrificed their lives for the country.

He avoided going to the shrine during its important spring and autumn festivals this year, as well as on the sensitive Aug 15 date, which marks the end of World War Two for the Japanese people.

Instead Mr Abe made personal offerings to the shrine.

His visit today is likely to make it even more difficult for Japan to repair relations with its two largest neighbours.

China and South Korea have long criticised visits by Japanese leaders and senior Cabinet members to the shrine as an attempt to whitewash Japan's past military aggression against Asian countries.

wengkin@sph.com.sg