SEOUL AND TOKYO // The South Korean president warned yesterday that conflicts over bitter shared history were complicating ties with Japan and urged Tokyo to do more to resolve the dispute over Korean women abducted to serve as sex slaves to wartime Japanese soldiers.
Underscoring how history haunts Japan's ties with South Korea and China, two Japanese cabinet ministers paid homage at a controversial Tokyo shrine for war dead, the Yasukuni Shrine, on the 67th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
Despite close economic ties, memories of Japanese militarism run deep in China and South Korea.
Recent feuding over rival claims to rocky islands are the latest sign of how the region has been unable to resolve differences over its past nearly seven decades after its defeat and the end of the occupation and colonisation of its neighbours.
Lee Myung-bak, Soul Korea's president, whose visit on Friday to an island claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo frayed ties between the countries, yesterday called Japan an "important partner that we should work with to open the future".
But in remarks commemorating Korea's liberation from Japan's 1910-1945 rule, Mr Lee also said the countries' tangled history was "hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow".
He urged Tokyo to do more to resolve a dispute over compensation for Korean women abducted to serve as sex slaves for wartime Japanese soldiers, known by the euphemism "comfort women" in Japan and long a source of friction.
"It was a breach of women's rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice. We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard," Mr Lee said.
Japan says the matter was closed under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1993, Tokyo issued a statement in the name of its then-chief cabinet secretary and two years later set up a fund to make payments to the women, but South Korea say those moves were not official and did not go far enough.
The feuds reflect scepticism among Japan's Asian neighbours over the sincerity of its apologies for wartime and colonial excesses. On Tuesday, Mr Lee told a meeting of teachers that the Japanese emperor, Akihito, should apologise sincerely if he wants to visit South Korea, saying a repeat of his 1990 expression of "deepest regrets" would not suffice.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the war's end yesterday, Yoshihiko Noda, the Japanese prime minister, acknowledged the "enormous damage and suffering" caused by Japan to other countries, especially in Asia.
"We deeply reflect upon (that) and express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families," he said, vowing that Japan would never go to war again.
Tapping into anti-Japanese sentiment remains a way to seek public support in South Korea and China, which face leadership changes in coming months. And some experts see a new strain of nationalism surfacing in Japan amid frustration at the country's stagnant economy and disappointment with Mr Noda's ruling party three years after it surged to power on hopes for change.
In a sign of the domestic pressures in Japan, the National Public Safety Commission chairman, Jin Matsubara, and the transport minister, Yuichiro Hata, visited the Yasukuni shrine for war dead, defying Mr Noda's urgings to stay away.
Many in the region see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism because 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honoured there along with Japan's war dead.
Yesterday's visit was the first by a cabinet minister since the Democrats swept to power in 2009, promising to forge warmer ties with the rest of Asia. Pilgrimages by then-premier Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni during his 2001-2006 term in office fuelled anger in both China and South Korea.
The China Daily, the country's main English-language newspaper, warned that the shrine visits risked "putting hard-won diplomatic relations with China in jeopardy".
"Some Japanese politicians are trying to distract the Japanese public from domestic problems by creating conflicts with China," said a commentary in the newspaper. "But this is just doubling down on a bad bet."
The Chinese government allowed a rare and brief protest in front of Japan's embassy, where a small group of people shouted anti-Japanese slogans before peacefully dispersing.
The Japanese ministers' defiance was another sign of Mr Noda's weak grip on his fractious party, which has recently suffered defections over his signature plan to raise the sales tax.
Japan's ties with South Korea, where resentment over its 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula remains strong, took a sharp turn for the worse after Mr Lee last week visited an island - known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan and near potential seabed gas deposits - claimed by both countries.
Relations with China, where memories of Japan's occupation of large parts of the country in the 1930s and 1940s still rankle, have also been strained by renewed bickering over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are near potentially huge oil and gas resources.