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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
January 30, 2006

Public Tolerates PM's Shrine Visits

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Issue inflames nationalism of Japan's neighbors at rare time of rival regional powers

The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading newspapers with circulation in the millions, in a recent editorial lamented, "Do we have such an unintelligent man as our prime minister?"

The question was raised in reference to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's New Year statement in which he remarked that he could not understand the forces both at home and abroad that criticize his visits to Yasukuni Shrine. "We cannot understand him," read the column headline in the newspaper, a leading media opponent to the premier's shrine visits.

Koizumi's position is that it is perfectly right for him as a national leader to pay respect to those who died for the nation and whose souls are enshrined at Yasukuni. Obviously, few people, including Chinese leaders, are questioning that.

The essential issue of diplomatic contention is that convicted Class-A war criminals are included among the war dead to whom the prime minister pays tribute on his visits. Chinese and South Koreans have focused on this point as grounds for their protests.

Justification for war

Chinese and South Koreans argue that, as long as the Japanese prime minister continues visiting the shrine, it is tantamount to the Japanese government's acquitting the war criminals and hence justifying the Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific War.

Clearly this is not the case, however. Koizumi, like his predecessors, admits that they were wars of aggression that caused great destruction, injustice and misery to the peoples of Asia, for which Japan owes apologies, and that the war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni really were criminals. So he has repeated his predecessors' profound apologies to the Chinese and other peoples of Asia.

What is difficult to understand, therefore, is the reason for Koizumi's adamant refusal to respond to the Chinese and South Korean protests regarding the war criminals at the shrine.

Koizumi has persistently ignored their protests and refused to meet eye to eye with the Chinese and South Koreans on this point, knowing full well that this infuriates them all the more and is leading to a deterioration of diplomatic relations. The Asahi newspaper's blunt statement in the column headline points this out.


Chinese and South Koreans may also be missing the point when they equate Yasukuni and the war criminals at the shrine with Japan's lack of repentance for the war. Japanese are generally repentant, albeit clumsy and awkward in expressing it in a way that convinces their neighbors who were victims of Japanese aggression.

Yasukuni Shrine today is far from being the symbol of Japanese militarism or militant nationalism as China tends to regard it. Class-A war criminals have never been seen as heroes by a majority of Japanese.

So it seems ridiculous that Japan and its two neighbors are at loggerheads on an issue that essentially lacks much substance but is looming larger and larger as a specter. Koizumi without a doubt is playing his game of making his Yasukuni visits a symbol of his resolve not to be bullied by China.

The prime minister's behavior comes largely from his headstrong character, rather than cool, pragmatic calculation.

However, the question is whether his adamancy on this issue is worth putting Japan's relations with its neighbors and its position in Asia at such risk.

Is this wise diplomacy that serves the national interest?

The mood of the nation is that Koizumi's overwhelming victory in last September's general election has given him a strong mandate to run the country as he likes and press forward with his agenda, but his admittedly dubious Asia policy is in stark contrast with what is lauded as a creditable domestic achievement. Is his alleged failure in Asia diplomacy a cost the nation must bear for accepting his success in the domestic agenda?

It is Koizumi's mistake that he has created a situation where conceding on the Yasukuni visits would make Japan appear to succumb to Chinese diplomatic pressure. The shrine issue has been overblown into an unwise symbolism of risky nationalistic confrontation. For that matter, I do not acquit the Chinese of abusing the shrine issue to build up their own nationalism.

Despite what is perceived to be his own debacle in damaging relations with China and South Korea, Koizumi still stands unscathed domestically. The nation seems to embrace this politician's style because of the underlying national concern about the growing presence of China.

Also, even though a majority of the nation may be critical of Koizumi's mishandling of the matter, they do not think the deterioration in the bilateral relationship is to be blamed entirely on Japan or Koizumi. A record 63.4% of the respondents to a recent government opinion poll did not feel friendly toward China, with those who did feel friendly dwindling to a record low 33.4%, apparently in light of what they perceive to be China's overbearing attitude toward Japan.

The Japanese have yet to adjust themselves to the unfolding fact of life - the rise of China and a corresponding eclipse of Japan's relative status.

"Is Japan being reduced to just a local country?" asked political commentator Takao Iwami in his column in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. While Japanese identify their country as an economic power, they do not regard Japan as much of a power in the real sense of the word. Perceived isolation in Asia would only add to this sentiment.

Sense of superiority

Until China awoke and began its phenomenal ascent about 30 years ago, Japanese tended to look down on their giant neighbor as an underdeveloped country with an uncertain future, a perception that had run deep in the Japanese mind since the 19th century. During this century-long period of a sense of superiority over China, Japan invaded it, in a war of aggression as the Japanese government now admits, leaving a history of unforgettable humiliation for the Chinese.

Such is the history of the relationship between the two countries. Now the two powers are vying for leadership in East Asia - an unprecedented situation in regional history to have two competing powers in existence at the same time.

Whether Koizumi has intended it or not, the Yasukuni Shrine issue has become a tinderbox for potentially inflammable nationalism separating the two countries. For the souls of war dead resting at the shrine, however, this certainly should not be what they dedicated their lives for.

(Originally appeared in the January 23, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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