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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #115: June 21, 2005

China-Japan Relations under the Koizumi Administration (series): - Tensions with China are polarizing Japan

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

A list of articles on a similar theme by the same author can be found here.

The current low in Japan-China relations has set off a fierce public debate in Japan about how to deal with the Middle Kingdom and the restless ghosts of Tokyo's wartime past. An ever-widening rift is opening up between those who believe Japan must respect Chinese sensitivities over Tokyo's brutal wartime actions, and neo-nationalists who claim that Japan has nothing for which to apologize. Serious divisions are now emerging within the governing coalition, and Japanese society is polarizing. The outcome of this bitter struggle is likely to profoundly shape Japan's dealings with China, as well as determine how ties between Asia's two largest economies will develop.

The focal point of national debate is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual pilgrimage to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine and the status of 14 class-A war criminals enshrined within the Shinto establishment, which honors Japan's 2.5 million war-dead. To the nationalist camp, such visits are patriotic and the men classified as war criminals, including wartime premier General Hideki Tojo, are heroes. Moderates feel it is inappropriate for a prime minister to pay homage at an institution that deifies leaders who were directly responsible for immense suffering in China.

The intensity of exchanges between the two sides over the issue is itself harming Sino-Japanese relations, as neo-nationalists use increasingly inflammatory and extremist rhetoric.

In recent weeks, right-wing members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have vigorously aired their revisionist interpretation of history, which seems specifically designed to enrage Beijing. The discourse has become so incendiary that eight former prime ministers have publicly demanded better relations with China and asked Koizumi not to visit Yasukuni. However, these pleas have failed to pacify LDP diehards.

Masahiro Morioka, an LDP lawmaker who passionately supports Koizumi's Yasukuni visits, said on national television, "Class-A war criminals are treated as bad people because of fear of China."

The increasingly ultra-nationalist tone of the debate is forcing moderates to hit back as already battered relations with China deteriorate even further.

The New Komeito Party, the dovish junior partner in the governing coalition, has denounced the LDP revisionists, criticized Koizumi's Yasukuni excursions and created tensions in the coalition. One New Komeito lawmaker, Junichi Fukumoto, told Koizumi in parliament, "I want you to think about how Jewish people would feel if the German chancellor visited the grave of Adolf Hitler."

Beijing has also been venting its anger, reminding Japan that many Chinese still live with the emotional scars of the war. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan explained, "It left huge traumas to innumerous Chinese families."

The business community, deeply worried about the impact the debate is having on bilateral economic ties, has also been speaking out. "The issue isn't visiting Yasukuni, but to recognize that the war criminals are there," said Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Japan's biggest business lobby, the Japan Business Federation. The overwhelming majority of Japanese firms operating in China now believe that political tensions are seriously impeding the expansion of economic links.

In 2004, bilateral trade flows totaled US$170 billion, making China Japan's biggest trading partner. Strong Chinese growth created huge demand for imported goods, which has fueled export growth for Japanese companies. The Yasukuni issue has the potential to disrupt booming commerce, something that would obviously damage both economies.

Despite criticisms from all quarters and the huge economic risk, Koizumi has strongly hinted he intends to visit Yasukuni this year, an action that would almost certainly bring Sino-Japanese relations to a dangerous low.

Former premiers hit out
Relations have now deteriorated to such a dangerous level that former Japanese leaders feel compelled to try to avert a crisis. In an unprecedented move, House of Representatives Speaker Yohei Kono convened a summit of five of Koizumi's predecessors, all of whom advised him against visiting Yasukuni.

Speaking on behalf of Kiichi Miyazawa, Tomiichi Murayama, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Yoshiro Mori and Toshiki Kaifu, Kono said, "We cannot overlook the rapid deterioration in Japan's relations with China. It cannot be denied that one of the reasons behind this is Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni." The statement also got the backing of three other former prime ministers, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Morihiro Hosokawa and Tsutomu Hata.

Kono, a former foreign minister, also publicly reminded Koizumi that only Nakasone had visited the shrine while prime minister in 1985, and that none of his other living predecessors had do so. Due to Chinese protests, Nakasone visited the shrine just once, while Koizumi has been four times since taking office.

A confident-sounding Koizumi casually dismissed the collective advice of every single one of his predecessors, telling reporters, "This is nothing new." He added in a cheerful tone, "I have heard these opinions individually."

His seeming indifference to the grave concerns of Japan's former helmsmen prompted Nakasone to publicly advise Koizumi not to visit the shrine. He said, "I understand the prime minister visits the shrine out of his personal beliefs. However, a prime minister should also think how his conduct will affect the national interest ... a separate enshrinement of class-A war criminals will take time, I think it would be an admirable political decision to stop visiting the shrine."

Public shift
Recent polls indicate that the public has shifted firmly against Koizumi going to Yasukuni this year. A new Kyodo News poll found 57.7% thought Koizumi should not visit Yasukuni, up 16.9 percentage points from December 2004, while those who support the visits stood at 34.3%, down by 16.7 points. According to an earlier NHK news survey, 48% of Japanese oppose Koizumi's continued visits to Yasukuni, while 40% support them.

A Mainichi Shimbun [newspaper] survey found that 50% of respondents opposed Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni while 41% supported them. In each poll the conducted by the newspaper, opposition has steadily grown. In April 2005, 45 percent were against while 42 percent were for them. In December 2004, the figures were 41 percent to 46 percent.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of coalition partner New Komeito, reiterated his party's call for Koizumi to refrain from visiting Yasukuni. Kanzaki warned that further Yasukuni visits "would have a negative impact to the foundation of the ruling coalition". However, he hedged his comments by adding, "A decision on whether to maintain the coalition will not be made on the Yasukuni issue alone, but on a more comprehensive judgment."

Even the ultra-conservative Japan War-Bereaved Association, which has supported and encouraged Koizumi's visits, has begun to sound cautious. "It is necessary to give consideration to neighboring countries and obtain their understanding," it urged Koizumi in an unusually conciliatory statement. Koizumi responded, "I'm always giving consideration," but did not rule out paying homage at the shrine this year.

Rising public concern over the Yasukuni issue is exposing bitter divisions within the LDP. Former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who has long demanded better relations with China, recently embarrassed Koizumi by pointing out the sheer absurdity of the current situation in which Chinese and Japanese leaders are barely on speaking terms and rarely meet. He told parliament, "It is abnormal not to be able to hold a normal summit with China. If we can talk frankly, we could hold a sufficient conversation on important issues."

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura publicly denounced Fukuda and other LDP lawmakers who take a "soft line" on China. He said, "It's odd that Mr Fukuda has made such remarks," and attacked Takeshi Noda, the LDP head of the Japan-China Society, saying, "Japan-China relations are heading in the wrong direction because of the presence of such a person [as Noda] flattering Chinese officials."

Rhetoric angers China
Masahiro Morioka, an LDP lawmaker and an aide to the health minister, took the neo-nationalist argument to new heights when he claimed the postwar prosecution of Japanese war criminals was illegal and there was nothing wrong with them being honored at Yasukuni.

"There are no grounds to say winners are right and losers are wrong. There is no need to apologize [for the war]," Morioka said in comments broadcast on national television. "That is the truth of the class-A war criminals, and Japan needs to tell this to not just China and South Korea, but to the world," he declared. "Koizumi has paid his respects at Yasukuni shrine every year. I think that is a very good thing," Morioka added.

Explaining his ideas about the wartime leaders, he claimed, "Class-A war criminals are treated as bad people because of fear of China. They were categorized by a one-sided tribunal led by the occupation forces. Saying it's bad to enshrine class-A criminals at Yasukuni Shrine is to turn a blind eye to future troubles."

China angrily denounced Morioka's comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Chinese people "express righteous indignation and severely condemn" the remarks. However, Koizumi brushed aside Morioka's comments and China's criticisms, saying, "The lawmaker was making personal comments and it's best not to make too much of it."

Prominent cabinet minister Taro Aso, Internal Affairs and Communications minister and a potential successor to Koizumi, said during a recent question and answer session at Oxford University that he felt China was deliberately exploiting the Yasukuni issue. He said, "I think what China is saying about the shrine raises the question why they bring this issue up. Are they just saying it to make things difficult for Japan?" He added, "In many respects, this shrine is like Arlington Cemetery in the United States. So I think it is a very natural thing for someone like me to go there to pay their respects."

Breaking a long silence, the granddaughter of General Tojo entered the debate. Yuko Tojo stated on TV that she opposed the removal of her father, who was executed as a class-A war criminal, from the list of those enshrined at Yasukuni. She said, "It's an issue of state and not a problem of a private individual. It's also not an issue of whether to withdraw enshrinement after a foreign country made a claim. It will be tantamount to admitting that the last war was a war of aggression. Japan didn't fight wars of aggression. Only China now says so."

Appearing with Tojo on the same television show, former Yasukuni priest Tadashi Yuzawa defiantly said removing the class-A war criminal "will never happen, no matter how times change".

Hisahiko Okazaki, a former Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand, recently wrote a lengthy and highly influential article in the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper articulating the views of neo-nationalists such as Tojo, Morioka and other LDP revisionists. He concluded, "Concerning the Yasukuni problem, Japan should not budge an inch. Any concession would be calamitous, endangering the security and prosperity of Japanese in the future."

If Koizumi follows Okazaki's advice and ignores the calls for restraint from his predecessors, the business community and the public, then Japan and China will find themselves on an extremely dangerous collision course.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 14 June 2005, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with permission.

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