As North Korea stokes ‘invasion’ fears over Japan troops’ Yasukuni visit, South Korea and China stay seemingly silent

While analysts said North Korea’s hyperbole was not really a surprise, what stood out was China and South Korea’s near silence on the issue.
“North Korea can always be creative in its attacks on Japan so this comes as little surprise as they’re looking to score political points, while South Korea has toned down the rhetoric in its media regarding Japan,” said Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.

“But I’m most surprised that China appears to have said nothing, as this is the sort of thing I would expect Beijing to pounce on.”

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South Korea’s Yonhap News reported on Pyongyang’s reaction to the SDF officers’ visit to Yasukuni, although other media outlets appeared to have avoided the usual criticism over the trip by Japanese officials. China’s state media also apparently skipped the issue.

“It is possible that China is waiting to see how the Japanese government responds to the officers’ actions before they weigh in,” Hinata-Yamaguchi said.

Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University and a specialist in military issues, said he was equally mystified at Beijing and Seoul failing to take advantage of the situation.

“It is, of course, no surprise that North Korea has taken a pop and then claiming that Japan is planning to invade the peninsula is par for the course there,” he said.

“When it comes to South Korea, it is very clear that Seoul wants better relations with Japan as well as the United States and while the South’s media is free, the lack of a reaction is telling.”


Place of controversy: Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine

Place of controversy: Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine

Mulloy suggested that editorial writers in South Korea and China might simply not have had the time or space to address the Yasukuni story, given the numerous pressing political, security and international crises that both nations presently face, and it was possible they would return to the issue in the future.

Yet, the incident did not go unnoticed in Japan, where both the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers harshly criticised it.

The Mainichi declared in a January 13 editorial that the troops had organised a group visit to the shrine, which would violate a “request” made in 1974 for members of the SDF to “strictly refrain” from going to religious facilities in units or forcing members to take part in trips as part of efforts to separate the government from religion.

It also demanded an inquiry into the matter and whether other similar visits had happened in the past, and requested that those who took part be dealt with in a “strict manner”.

“As members belonging to an organisation which possesses military capabilities, SDF personnel need to maintain strong self-discipline,” it said. “They must firmly refrain from engaging in actions that could invite distrust from the public and Japan’s neighbours.”

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Local reports said that the officers used internal defence ministry emails to arrange the visit and some even travelled to the shrine in official government vehicles.

The Asahi slammed the trip, saying it “raises serious doubts about the organisation’s commitment to its founding principles”.

The article said the visit by Lieutenant General Hiroki Kobayashi, second-in-command of the Ground Staff Office, and around a dozen of his immediate subordinates, “breached the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution”.

It questioned whether the SDF was “losing sight” of its origins, based on national “soul-searching over a ‘dark chapter’ in its history: its war of aggression and colonial rule”.

Yasukuni Shrine, it pointed out, was “the core of state-sponsored Shinto that became the spiritual pillar of Japan’s militarism in the lead-up to and during World War II”, adding that it also enshrined 14 Class-A war criminals.

People pay respects to the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. File photo: AP

Professor Mulloy said the media outlets that had protested the tour “are worried that these sorts of visits will become normalised” within the Japanese military.

“Perhaps a group of 12 people is not such a big issue, but it is a point of principle,” he said.

“It is perfectly acceptable for individual members of the SDF to pay their respects at Yasukuni or other religious venues, but it appears they crossed the line by organising this visit via office emails, treated it almost like a work event and used ministry cars.”

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