TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi's visit to the war-related Yasukuni shrine
in Tokyo on Monday morning immediately drew an
angry response from neighbors, especially China
and South Korea.
But while the visit had
been widely expected, and will certainly prolong
the chill in Japan's relations with its neighbors,
Koizumi apparently chose the style and timing of
worship very carefully in hopes of minimizing the
In this he might have
Within hours of the visit,
China pulled the plug on a Sunday trip to Beijing
by Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, and
Korean officials say President Roh Moo-hyun is now
reconsidering a visit to Japan later this year.
The shrine visit also casts a pall over
next month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
(APEC) forum in Busan, South Korea. The 21-nation
summit can hardly afford distractions as it is
scheduled to deal with a variety of critical
issues, such as bird flu and terrorism. Top
leaders from APEC, including Koizumi, Chinese
President Hu Jintao and Roh, are expected to
In December, the first East Asia
Summit will be held in Malaysia, with leaders of
Japan, China, South Korea and 13 other countries
In early November, the next
round of six-nation talks on resolving North
Korea's nuclear ambitions will open in Beijing.
Further strained ties with China and South Korea
could weaken Japan's negotiating position in the
talks. The other participating countries are the
United States, North Korea and Russia.
Koizumi apparently wanted to meet with
Chinese and South Korean leaders face to face
after as long a cooling-off period as possible
from this latest shrine visit.
Monday's visit will affect Japan's diplomatic
calendar, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda
said, "We think everything will go ahead as
In April 2001, Koizumi won the
presidential election of the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) on a pledge to visit
Yasukuni, and he then became prime minister.
Before the latest visit, he had been to the Shinto
shrine every year since taking office. Monday's
visit was his fifth.
Yasukuni is seen by
Japan's Asian neighbors as a symbol of Japan's
past militarism. Besides about 2.4 million war
dead, 14 Class-A Japanese war criminals, including
former prime minister Hideki Tojo, are enshrined
Koizumi's visit this year had been
widely expected, although the timing was anybody's
guess. Speculation that he would make this year's
first visit soon had further grown, particularly
after his LDP won a landslide victory in the Lower
House election on September 11. Koizumi had simply
said that he would consider the timing
Yasukuni in defiance of repeated requests
from top Chinese and South Korean leaders to stop
doing so. The Chinese ambassador in Tokyo, Wang
Yi, said, "Koizumi must shoulder the historical
responsibility for damaging Sino-Japanese
relations." Wang added that the visit was a
"serious provocation" because it coincided with
the "glorious return" of China's second manned
space flight, the Shenzhou VI, to Earth on Monday.
He lodged an official protest.
Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said, "We
strongly protest the visit to Yasukuni shrine
despite our request and strongly urge that it is
not repeated. It is not excessive to say that
Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni shrine
have been the biggest stumbling block to South
style Koizumi's visit comes less than
three weeks after the Osaka High Court ruled that
such visits violated the constitutional separation
of state and religion. It was the first time that
a prime minister's visit to the shrine has been
ruled unconstitutional by a high court. Only the
day before the September 30 ruling, the Tokyo High
Court handed down a different verdict and judged
Koizumi's Yasukuni visits to be a "private act".
Koizumi has insisted that he has gone to
the shrine as a private citizen to simply pay
tribute to the Japanese war dead and pray for
peace. He reiterated this view on Monday at a
meeting of government and LDP leaders shortly
after visiting the shrine.
a different style of worship this time in an
apparent bid to give the impression of "private
worship" to Japan's Asian neighbors as well as
Koizumi, dressed in a
grey suit, visited Yasukuni without putting up his
umbrella in light rain, among a cheering crowd.
Like ordinary worshippers, he prayed at the front
shrine before returning to his car. In his
previous visits, Koizumi wore either morning dress
or haori and hakama - traditional
Japanese formal attire - and stepped into the main
shrine for praying.
This time, Koizumi did
not strictly follow the Shinto style of worship -
bowing twice, clapping hands twice and then bowing
once again - either. He bowed once, put money in a
wooden box for receiving offerings, prayed with
his palms together for about 30 seconds and then
bowed once again.
In the previous visits,
Koizumi signed the visitors' book "Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi". But on Monday he did not even
sign the book. In addition, Koizumi did not pay
for wreath-laying and sacred Shinto tree branches.
He had previously paid pocket money for
In addition to the style of
worship, Koizumi carefully calculated the
timing. His visit came only three days after
the Diet (parliament) enacted postal privatization
bills that will privatize Japan Post, effectively
the world's largest financial institution. Postal
privatization is the centerpiece of Koizumi's
reform drive. When the postal bills were voted
down in the previous diet session in early August,
he dissolved the Lower House for the snap
September 11 election. After winning that vote,
his top political priority was to push through the
Monday marked the first day
of the Yasukuni shrine's four-day autumn festival.
Shrine officials had requested that the prime
minister visit the shrine during the festival.
Unhappy neighbors Japan's
relations with China and South Korea remain at
their lowest points in decades because of
rekindled territorial disputes, Tokyo's bid for a
permanent seat on the United Nations Security
Council and the controversy over Japanese school
textbooks authored by rightwing scholars, as well
as because of Koizumi's repeated visits to
Diplomatic tensions are also
running high between Tokyo and Beijing over a
Chinese natural gas project in the disputed waters
in the East China Sea near the so-called median
line, which was drawn by Japan but has not been
recognized by China. The line is meant to separate
the two countries' exclusive economic zones, or
EEZs. The disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu
Islands in Chinese, are located on the Japanese
side of the median line.
Of the various
issues currently plaguing bilateral ties, this
dispute is potentially the most volatile and could
even lead to a military confrontation.
Tensions have been high since last month
when a Chinese destroyer aimed its guns at a
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force P3-C
surveillance plane near the disputed waters of the
Chunxiao gas field. Five Chinese warships have
recently been observed in the same area. Beijing
has declared that it wants to make the East China
Sea a "sea of cooperation", but many in Tokyo now
fear it could soon become a "sea of
While the three fields
China is currently bringing online are all on
their side of the Tokyo-designated median line,
Japan has expressed deep concern that China may be
siphoning off natural resources buried under the
seabed on its side of the median line. The
Chunxiao/Shirakaba and Duanqiao/Kusunoki fields
have been confirmed to be connected at the
subterranean level to a gas field that lies within
what Japan says is its EEZ. The Tianwaitian/Kashi
gas field is also suspected to be directly
connected to deposits on the Japanese side.
In late May, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi
visited Japan, a trip that had been widely
expected to help repair tense bilateral ties
following anti-Japanese riots that spread across
China the previous month. But Wu abruptly canceled
a planned meeting with Koizumi and flew back to
Beijing in order to vent China's anger over the
Japanese leader's adamant stance on the Yasukuni
issue. Koizumi had reiterated on the eve of his
meeting with Wu that he would continue to visit
Koizumi his own man Japanese public opinion is split down the
middle over Koizumi's Yasukuni visits. The
Associated Press reported a Nippon Television
public opinion poll over the weekend that found
that 47.6% of respondents supported the visits,
while 45.5% opposed it.
the prime minister's argument that he visits the
shrine just to pay tribute to the war dead.
Conservative people and newspapers in Japan blame
the strained Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties on what
they describe as China's "patriotic and
anti-Japanese" education and even accuse China of
"interference in the internal affairs" of Japan by
demanding Koizumi give up the Yasukuni visits.
Some opponents, meanwhile, agree with China that
the visits are acts that glorify Japan's past
militarism. Other opponents question the wisdom of
Koizumi sticking to his belief and continuing to
fan anti-Japanese sentiment among Asian neighbors.
"Most of the people in Japan don't really
care," said Steven Reed, a professor of political
science at Japan's Chuo University told
Bloomberg.com. "Koizumi's in a great position; he
can do what he wants, he has a huge majority and
doesn't have to worry about getting reelected.
Koizumi's position is this is not an international
issue and shouldn't be."
When he was
elected LDP president - and thereby prime minister
- Koizumi pledged to visit the shrine on August
15, the highly publicized anniversary of Japan's
defeat in World War II. Although he has paid a
visit there annually, Koizumi has refrained from
following through on his 2001 campaign pledge to
do so on August 15, apparently in hopes of
minimizing the damage.
On August 15 this
year, Koizumi issued a statement offering a
"heartfelt apology" for Japan's past aggression
and colonial rule of Asian neighbors. It is widely
believed, however, that Koizumi eschewed a shrine
visit during the election campaign period for the
Lower House, especially on the most
headline-grabbing day of August 15, out of
domestic political considerations rather
than foreign-policy considerations.
Koizumi tried to make the Lower House
election a fight with the opposition parties over
his pet project to privatize Japan Post. His
strategy to make the September 11 poll a
single-issue election worked, resulting in his
LDP's big win. If Koizumi had visited the shrine
on August 15, he might have shot himself in the
foot by providing the biggest opposition party,
the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), with powerful
ammunition to launch an offensive against him and
pushing the shrine issue to the top of the list of
major election issues.
In its manifesto,
or campaign platform, the DPJ had indirectly
blamed Koizumi for the current chilly ties between
Japan and China and criticized him for lacking a
relationship of trust with top Chinese leaders.
Mutual visits by top leaders of the two countries
to each other's capital have not taken place in
nearly four years, despite an earlier agreement
for alternate visits every year. The statement
issued by Koizumi on August 15 was also widely
seen as an attempt to counter the DPJ criticism of
his policy toward neighbors.
another shrine visit during the election campaign
period would have adversely affected campaign
cooperation between the LDP and its coalition
partner, the New Komeito Party, which has objected
to Koizumi visiting the shrine. As a result of the
September 11 poll, New Komeito's presence in the
coalition has significantly declined.
After his thumping win, Koizumi may now
have begun to feel that he does not need to listen
to the coalition partner's voices over various
issues, including Yasukuni, as carefully as he had
had to previously. Koizumi remains reluctant to
buy a proposal to construct a state-run,
non-religious alternative facility to the shrine,
an idea strongly backed by New Komeito, as well as
the DPJ - and South Korea - to break the stalemate
To be sure, even if Koizumi
stopped visiting Yasukuni, Sino-Japanese relations
would very likely remain uneasy in the foreseeable
future, due to other equally intractable issues.
But any Koizumi turnabout would significantly ease
tensions, paving the way for Japan to take a
greater leadership role in regional affairs.
But Koizumi has not chosen this path.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based
journalist, commentator and scholar on
international politics and economy. Masaki's
e-mail address is email@example.com