Japan's PM Shinzo Abe

In a pocket of relative tranquillity overlooking Mikawa Bay in the south-east corner of Nagoya's urban area is Mount Sangane. The local government area tourist board, GO! Central Japan, Visit Chubu, is a little coy in its description of the Mt Sangane Skyline road:

"When you drive up the Sangane-san Sky Line road, you will come to a large ridge on the summit. Sangane Kannon Temple, Hitou Kannon Temple and Junkokunanashi Cemetery (the cemetery for the seven men who sacrificed their lives to the nation) are located here...."

The Cemetery bears the name of the inscription engraved on a five-meter high memorial. Now, I wonder who are these seven heroes? Westerners might find that their presence is not welcome at the Cemetery, likewise, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese not of a nationalist, far-right persuasion. The final clue is that all seven were war criminals and hanged at Tokyo's Sugamo Prison on 23 December 1948.

Their bodies were later cremated in Yokohama and all their ashes were meant to have been scattered at sea on the orders of General MacArthur – then Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) – but one of the defence lawyers for the convicted was able to retrieve some of the ashes for (much later) burial at Sangane and some at the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo.

Japan's current Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, has a long-term goal to rehabilitate these men and "revise" Japan's World War II record. In line with this policy he made a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and immediately followed this with a webcast on 15 August 2013, stating:

"I believe it is common practice for leaders around the world to pray for the souls of people who have died in wars..."

As 15 August is significant for being the anniversary of the Shōwa Emperor (Hirohito)'s radio address announcing Japan's surrender to the Allies in 1945 and too, his choice of shrine, Mr Abe's broadcast came in for much censure.

The Prime Minister went on to say that he had no intention to hurt the feelings of South Korea and China and that the purpose of the visit was to show "humility, courtesy and sincerity" to the souls of Japan's war dead but Mr Abe knows full well the significance of the day and the particular Shrine and with a clear majority in both houses of the Japanese parliament, it is clearly Mr Abe's choice to be seen in support of the far right.

No surprise then that Prime Minister Abe was heaped with further loud and prolonged censure from China in particular, and Korea, on Boxing Day 2013, after an "unofficial" visit to the Shrine. This time it was to prove more irritating, earning a diplomatic rebuke from Japan's closest ally, the United States and less expectedly, an expression of "regret" for the Prime Minister's visit, from Russia.

For an "unofficial" visit, it had been made no secret to the media and there were many well-wishers on hand, waving the national flag and lined up ready to cheer the PM as he was carried to and from the Shrine in a very official-looking car.

America's Vice President Joe Biden, who had visited South Korea and China as well as Japan during early December must have felt particularly aggrieved as he had urged Prime Minister Abe not to go but the Japanese Government ignored this plea and gave Washington notice of the visit only one hour beforehand.

The Japan Times on 27 December quoted one US official saying that Abe's visit: "...rendered recent US efforts to help Japan mend fences with China and South Korea 'useless' ".

"Official", "Unofficial", "Private" yet really very public, what is going on here? Why do such visits to Yasukuni (and the much lesser known Sangane) generate such consternation outside Japan and do not meet with universal approval domestically with a majority of Japanese believing that such public visits only generate controversy and are to the country's detriment.

This Shinto Shrine honours some 2.47 million souls of those who have died fighting for their Emperor since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and was founded in 1869 after the forces of the Tokugawa Shoganate were defeated in the Boshin War. The figure includes the likes of nurses and doctors and the likes of stretcher bearers in the battle zone killed in the service of their Emperor (but not war dead from aerial bombing).

No problem so far but Yasukuni is still particularly associated with "State Shinto" which developed after the Meiji Restoration, whereby the Buddhist elements of Shinto were much lessened in importance and the "divine" Emperor embodied the very state. Abolished by the Allies in 1945 through the Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto, the purpose was not to destroy Shinto but to:

"...prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression..."

Everything should now have been settled and for many years after World War II, Yasukuni was visited throughout the year by all the Japanese, including the Emperor, without any controversy arising. What changed this was the enshrining of the souls of Class B and Class C war criminals, beginning in April 1959 but for long kept secret. In 1975 it was reported that the souls of A, B and C war criminals had been enshrined and with this now public knowledge, in November 1975 the Shōwa Emperor made the last royal visit to Yasukuni.

Here is the crux of the problem: once a soul has been enshrined at any particular temple, that action according to Shinto principles, cannot be rescinded.

It is the inclusion in the veneration at Yasukuni of men such as Hideki Tōjō, which China in particular, and Japan's other enemies of World War II in general, find so objectionable and difficult to understand. It was Tōjō, who by an Imperial Edict of the Supreme War Council on 05 August 1937, abolished any constraints on the treatment of prisoners of war. This Edict was interpreted in the broadest sense possible and too often in practice included civilians.

Hideki Tōjō was Minister of War between July 1940 and July 1944 and between October 1941 and July 1944, Prime Minister. Before this he had been one of the main generals in Manchuria and China and head of the Kempeitai, Japan's Military and "secret" Police.

From the late 30s, the Japanese military and government authorities sanctioned the use of chemical and germ warfare establishing a notorious centre outside Harbin both for production of such agents and for their use on prisoners – including Allied after 1941.

Not restricting the use of such lethal substances to the torturing of individuals, many military campaigns in China saw their use through the shelling and bombing of cities and countryside with devices armed with anthrax, plague and other deadly agents.

This was an act of deliberate genocide taken, at least partly, because the Japanese were demoralised at how big China was in both size and population and how much tougher the opposition had been (80 per cent or more of the fighting against much inferior armed Nationalist troops) than they had anticipated. General Hajime Sugiyama had told his Emperor in 1937, China would be conquered in three months.

Japan's Government and Armed Forces, both of which saw General Tōjō play a critical role, condoned rape and massacre on a scale that beggars belief and their use as an implement of war.

In 1940, with no breakthrough, the Supreme War Council's successor, Imperial General Headquarters, decided to get even tougher, issuing its new policy: "The Burn To Ash Strategy" (Jinmetsu Sakusen) which would later be summarised as the "Three Alls" – Kill all. Burn all. Loot all.

Much of this "Three Alls" Campaign was directed under the leadership of General Yasuji Okamura and two Japanese historians, Mitsuyoshi Himeta and Akira Fujiwara, have estimated that it caused the deaths of 2.7 million Chinese civilians. Two other Japanese historians claim that General Okamura was using chemical weapons in battles against the Chinese as early as 1938.

A number of senior Japanese officers complained about the conduct of the war and most of these men were "retired", or like Lt General Kanji Ishiwara, sent back and given a posting to guard a base in the homeland – on the direct orders of General Tojo.

There should never be any doubt, there were military codes in Japan concerning the proper and humane treatment of prisoners of war and civilians in occupied territory just as there were in other developed countries and immediately prior to his execution, General Tōjō apologised for the atrocities that the Japanese military had committed.

Needless to say, he is one of the seven named on the memorial at Sangane and of the several war criminals at Yasukuni.

Mr Abe knows who erected the Sangane memorial – it was his grandfather – and as a private citizen he is perfectly entitled to pay his respects and offer prayers in accordance with his beliefs at any shrine and for any person(s) or cause he chooses. There's the rub of course, because his choice is to do so publicly and as head of government it suggests, at the very least, his private devotions are that of the nation.

His Emperor has offered China and Korea his sincere and deepest remorse for past actions....Ah, there's the difference between a politician and a monarch.