By Linda Sieg and Ben Blanchard
TOKYO/BEIJING (Reuters) - Japan risks losing a global PR battle with China after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a controversial shrine for war dead and comments by other prominent figures on the wartime past helped Beijing try to paint Tokyo as the villain of Asia.
Sino-Japanese ties have long been plagued by territorial rows, regional rivalry and disputes stemming from China's bitter memories of Japan's occupation of parts of the country before and during World War Two. Relations chilled markedly after a feud over disputed East China Sea isles flared in 2012.
Beijing, however, has stepped up its campaign to sway international public opinion since Abe's December 26 visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism because it honors leaders convicted as war criminals with millions of war dead.
That strategy has helped China shift some of the debate away from its growing military assertiveness in Asia, including double digit defense spending increases and the recent creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that was condemned by Tokyo and Washington, experts said.
"Right now, this is a real war," said Shin Tanaka, president of the FleishmanHillard Japan Group in Tokyo, a communications consultancy.
"Japan and China are using missiles called 'messages' and the reality is that a lot of damage is already happening in both countries," he added, warning of a mutual backlash of nationalist emotions and potential harm to business ties.
Abe has repeatedly said he did not visit the shrine to honor war criminals but to pay his respects to those who died for their country and pledge Japan would never again go to war.
Getting that message across is not easy, communications and political experts said. Abe's Yasukuni visit "gave China the opportunity ... to attack Japan and send the message that China is the good guy and Japan is the bad guy," Tanaka said.
"GOEBBELSIAN PR BINGE"
Some Japanese diplomats and officials dismissed any suggestion they were worried, saying Tokyo's rebuttals and the country's post-war record of peace would win the day.
"Their Goebbelsian PR binge - repeat it 100 times then it becomes true, ungrounded or not - shows all the symptoms of a Leninist regime still remaining in the 21st century," Tomohiko Taniguchi, a councillor in the cabinet secretariat of the prime minister's office, said in an email.
He was referring to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's minister of propaganda from 1933-1945.
"Yes we feel annoyed, but the next moment we relax for we have nothing to be ashamed of."
Still, experts said Abe's shrine visit had made it easier for Beijing to try to link Abe's plans to bolster the military and loosen limits on the pacifist constitution to Japan's militarist past.
"The most fundamental thing they say is to assert that Japan is going on a path of militarism a la the 1930s. That's just nonsense," said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. "But the problem is the Chinese are able to blur a lot of this stuff because of what Abe did."
Recent remarks about the wartime past by the chairman of NHK public TV and members of its board of governors have added grist to China's PR mill.
Among those remarks were comments by new NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii, who told a news conference last month that "comfort women" - a euphemism for women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels - had counterparts in every country at war at that time. He later apologized.
NHK's chief is selected by a board of governors that includes four Abe appointees.
Since the start of the year, Chinese ambassadors and other officials have targeted Japan 69 times in media around the world, Japan's Foreign Ministry said. The campaign includes interviews, written commentaries and news conferences.
As of Monday, Japan had issued rebuttals in 67 cases with the other two under review, Foreign Ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said.
Asked if China had won over international opinion, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said countries such as South Korea - where memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonization run deep - had also criticized Tokyo.
"The mistaken ways of the Japanese leader have incurred the strong opposition of the international community," Hua told reporters. "China is willing to work with other victims of the war and the international community to uphold historical justice."
The verbal jousting has spanned the globe from capitals such as London and Washington to remote Fiji and South Sudan.
The best known exchanges are the "Voldemort attacks" in which China's ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, last month compared Japan to the villain in the Harry Potter children's book series. In reply, Japan's envoy, Keiichi Hayashi, said China risked becoming "Asia's Voldemort".
"We try to explain that Japan faces its history squarely and has expressed remorse ... (and that) Japan will continue to pursue the path of a peace-loving country," Sato said.
"Sometimes they try to link the visit to the shrine to security policy. That is a totally unrelated matter."
Still, some in Japan fear that China's PR blitz is having an impact on world opinion.
"A lie is repeated so that people are brainwashed and start to believe it," Akira Sato, head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's panel on defense policy told Reuters.
Echoed a Western diplomat in Beijing: "China is being successful at getting its message across while Japan keeps saying stupid things like questioning the existence of comfort women. I think (China) has changed opinions."
Tokyo's mostly reactive approach, some PR experts said, was not enough to sway international public opinion, a worry some Japanese diplomats share privately.
"Japan is very worried that China is winning this propaganda war," said an Asian diplomat based in Beijing. "Their diplomats have been asking how they can better put their side of the story and win people over in the West."
That could be tough if Abe declines to say whether he will visit Yasukuni again or other prominent Japanese figures make controversial comments on wartime history, experts said.
Other matters such as planned changes to Japanese textbooks to promote patriotism could add fuel to the fire.
"Even if he doesn't go to Yasukuni again, there are plenty of issues on their (the Japanese government's) agenda," Sneider said.
(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Dean Yates)