U.S. Vice President Joe Biden asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to prevent a further deterioration in Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors but Abe refused, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.
Later in the month Abe visited the Shinto shrine, where convicted Japanese wartime leaders are honored along with war dead, triggering fierce criticism from China and South Korea, and leading the U.S. government to express disappointment at his decision in an unusually explicit manner.
As U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to visit Japan in April for talks with Abe, the rising tensions between Japan and the two neighboring countries, which could undermine U.S. interests in the region, will likely be high on the agenda and could dash Abe's hopes for enhancing Tokyo's security alliance with Washington.
In telephone talks with Abe on Dec. 12, Biden repeatedly urged Abe to refrain from visiting the Shinto shrine, while revealing he had requested South Korean President Park Geun Hye to make efforts to improve relations with Japan, according to the sources.
Biden visited Japan, China and South Korea in early December. The nearly one-hour phone conversation with Abe, which took place after Biden returned to Washington, was for the vice president to brief the prime minister on what he had discussed with South Korean and Chinese leaders during the trip.
Abe responded to Biden by saying, "I will decide by myself whether I will go" to the shrine, declining to comply his request, according to one of the sources.
During the tense conversation, Abe did not provide an assurance he would avoid visiting the shrine, and Biden finally gave up, saying he would leave the decision to the prime minister, the sources said.
That part of the conversation was not revealed when Japanese officials held a press briefing in Tokyo shortly after the telephone talks.
Two weeks later, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine.
Abe said he wanted to pray for the souls of those who died in the war, adding he never meant to hurt the feelings of people in countries that suffered Japanese aggression during World War II.
China and South Korea among other Asian nations criticized Abe for being insensitive to their feelings about Japan's wartime aggression, further straining relations already soured over territorial disputes and differing perceptions of history.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo released a statement immediately after Abe's Dec. 26 visit to the shrine, saying it had "disappointed" Washington. The U.S. State Department issued the same statement. The unexpectedly harsh tone surprised many officials in Tokyo.
While a senior Foreign Ministry official said, "Japan and the United States are allied and there is no concern," a different source close to bilateral relations said the U.S. statement "can be taken as representing the vice president's own feelings."