Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan sought on Thursday to counter the deep-seated anger among some other Asia-Pacific countries over his government’s militaristic shift, using a visit to the United Nations to denounce “war culture” and express a desire to improve relations with Japan’s neighbors, in particular China and South Korea, where memories of Japanese wartime atrocities are never far from the surface.
In his speech to the annual General Assembly meeting and a news conference later, Mr. Abe, a longtime conservative who came to office in December 2012, portrayed himself as an outgoing and peace-loving statesman. He has met with dozens of other leaders over the past few years, including many in the Asia-Pacific region, with the conspicuous exceptions of President Xi Jinping of China and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea.
Mr. Abe acknowledged at the news conference that he “would like to improve relations with China and South Korea, precisely because they are neighbors.”
He also said that if he is to achieve his wish to meet with Mr. Xi and Ms. Park on the sidelines of an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in less than two months, “quiet efforts are needed.”
He struck a conciliatory tone in his General Assembly speech, emphasizing Japan’s peaceful nature since the collapse of its expansionist empire and defeat in World War II.
“Japan has been, is now, and will continue to be a force providing momentum for proactive contributions to peace,” he said,according to the official English translation. “Moreover, I wish to state and pledge first of all that Japan is a nation that has worked to eliminate the ‘war culture’ from people’s hearts and will spare no efforts to continue doing so.”
Japan’s relations with China have deteriorated under Mr. Abe, in part over rival claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.
Its relations with South Korea have also worsened over South Korean accusations that Japan has not sufficiently atoned for the use of Korean women as sexual slaves, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” by its soldiers during World War II.
Ms. Park has said Mr. Abe must make a “courageous decision” on the comfort women issue if relations are to improve.
China, South Korea and other Asian nations once subjugated by Japan have also expressed concern about Mr. Abe’s reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar Constitution to allow the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to expand its functions.
Mr. Abe reiterated in his General Assembly speech that Japan wishes to become a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, reflecting what he called the outdated postwar order of 1945, when the United Nations was born.
The five permanent members are Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Japan is a member of the so-called G-4 group of nations that want to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council. The others are Brazil, Germany and India.
In a communiqué issued on Thursday after ministers from the four nations met on the sidelines of the General Assembly, they underscored their determination for “Security Council reform which makes it more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thereby further enhances its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions.”