Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a sudden visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, in defiance of the wishes of the Korean government and at the risk of further worsening bilateral relations. His visit to Yasukuni, where convicted Class A war criminals as well as the other war dead are enshrined, also made a summit with President Park Geun-hye an even more remote possibility.
In the past, Abe has justified shrine visits by members of his Cabinet, saying it is natural for them to pay respect to the war dead, who sacrificed their lives for Japan. But Korea and China, both victims of Japan's imperial ambitions, have opposed this because they perceive the visits as attempts to sugarcoat Japan's colonial past.
It is not their Yasukuni visits alone that have bolstered the belief, held by both Korea and China, that Japan is whitewashing its colonial past. This perception was strengthened when Abe said: "The definition of aggression has yet to be established, both academically and internationally. It has to do with relations between countries and differs depending on one's vantage point."
Abe's de facto denial of the sufferings Japan inflicted on its neighbours ran counter to a 1995 statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who had expressed remorse and offered an apology over Japan's colonial rule and wartime aggression. Another problem with Abe was that he also denied the historical fact that Korean and other Asian women were forced into Japan's military brothels.
No wonder, Japanese-Korean relations have remained at a very low ebb since Abe was installed as prime minister a year ago. Abe has since called for Japanese-Korean summit talks, only to see his proposal turned down. In her mind, Park apparently wonders if it is necessary to meet him, given that they are destined to disagree on key historical issues.
Korea used to put Japan before China in its foreign policy when its two neighbours were competing for leadership in Asia. This foreign policy is now changing in favour of Korean-Chinese relations, as evidenced by Park's visit to Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping earlier in the year.
If it wishes to be seated on the pedestal of regional leadership, as it does, Japan will need the courage with which to look squarely at its shameful past and come to terms with its historical wrongdoings. A first step in this regard will be to find a new way to pay respect to the war dead as an alternative to Yasukuni visits by Cabinet members.