Sino-Japanese ties, long plagued by China's bitter memories of
Tokyo's wartime aggression, have worsened since a feud over disputed
East China Sea islands flared in 2012. Relations with South Korea
are also badly frayed by a separate territorial row and the legacy
of Japan's 1910-1945 colonization.
"For the 69 years since the end of World War Two, we have built the
present-day Japan based on the notions of freedom, democracy and
peace," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who acts as Japan's
top government spokesman and is one of Abe's most trusted aides,
told Reuters in an interview.
"They say that Japan is a military power but (the defense budget
increase in the year to March) was just 0.8 percent, while China has
kept increasing its defense budget by more than 10 percent annually
for 20 years," Suga said. "To be called 'militarist' by such a
country is completely off the mark."
China's announcement late last year of a new air defense
identification zone, including the skies over the disputed isles,
increased tensions with Beijing, while Abe's December visit to a
controversial shrine for war dead seen by critics as a symbol of
Japan's past militarism further marred Tokyo's ties with its two
Japan's close ally the United States has made clear it is keen to
see a dialing down of tensions in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Asia ahead of President
Barack Obama's April visit to the region, on Thursday urged Tokyo
and Seoul to "put history behind them" and calm tensions in the face
of the threat from a volatile North Korea.
Looming large among the issues fraying Japan's relations with South
Korea is the question of compensation and an apology to so-called
"comfort women", as the women who were forced to work in Japanese
wartime military brothels are euphemistically known. Many of those
women were Korean.
DOOR TO DIALOGUE
Suga reiterated Japan's stance that the matter of compensation was
settled in the framework of a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic
ties. In 1993 Japan's then-government spokesman, Yohei Kono, issued
a statement apologizing for the involvement of Japan's military in
In 1995, Japan set up a fund to make payments to the women from
private contributions, but South Korea says that was not official
and so not enough.
[to top of second column]
Japanese media have speculated about a possible summit between Abe
and South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a international
nuclear security summit at The Hague next month, but Suga declined
to comment on the prospects.
"China and South Korea are neighboring countries, so the door to
dialogue is always open, and while stressing what we must stress, we
want to deal with both countries calmly and from a broad
perspective," he said.
Suga also said that Tokyo's ties with Washington were solid despite
Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime leaders convicted
as war criminals are honored along with other war dead.
The United States issued a rare public statement of disappointment
after the December pilgrimage, which Abe said was not intended to
honor the "Class-A" war criminals enshrined there but to pay his
respects to those who died for their country and to promise never
again to go to war.
"The U.S.-Japan relationship is not wavering," Suga said.
He cited progress on a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps air base
on Japan's Okinawa island, Abe's decision to join talks on
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact and Tokyo's decision
to join a treaty for cross-border child custody disputes, steps
urged when Obama met Abe last February.
The governor of Okinawa has signed off on a plan to relocate the
Futenma air base from a crowded part of the southern Japanese island
to the less populated city of Nago. But Abe suffered a setback when
the incumbent mayor of Nago, who opposes the plan, was re-elected
The central government has nonetheless vowed to go ahead with the
controversial relocation plan, which is opposed by many residents
who link the U.S. bases with crime, accidents and pollution.
(Editing by Matt Driskill)
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