TOKYO - In defiance of both domestic and
foreign pressure, Japanese Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi made a widely anticipated
pilgrimage to the controversial war-related
Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Tuesday, his first
such visit on the anniversary of Japan's World War
Koizumi has visited the
shrine once every year - on different days - since
taking office in April 2001, but until Tuesday's
61st World War II anniversary, he had avoided the
highly publicized, emotionally charged and
He took the helm of the
ruling Liberal Democratic Party and government
after winning the LDP presidential race on a
campaign pledge to visit the shrine on August 15.
Koizumi is to step down
month when his current three-year term expires, so
Tuesday was his last chance to follow through on
Koizumi became the first
Japanese premier to make the anniversary visit to
Yasukuni in more than two decades. Yasuhiro
Nakasone sparked a controversy in 1985 by making
the anniversary visit in his official capacity.
Koizumi made his previous visit on October 17.
"I go there to remember and reflect on
past wars and renew our resolve never to go to war
again," he told reporters. "Today's peace and
prosperity are not just because of those who are
alive now, but were built based on those who
sacrificed their precious lives."
latest visit immediately drew a barrage of
criticism from Japan's Asian neighbors, especially
China and South Korea, which are victims of
Japan's wartime atrocities and regard the shrine
as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. In
addition, it has a war-memorial museum called
Yushukan, which critics say glorifies Japan's
imperial militarism and attempts to justify it.
The shrine's name means "peaceful nation",
but along with some 2.5 million war dead, 14 Class
A war criminals, including former prime minister
Hideki Tojo, are enshrined at the Shinto facility.
China's Foreign Ministry said in a
statement on its website that the visit "damages
the political basis for Sino-Japanese relations"
and poses "a challenge to international justice".
"The Chinese government expresses its firm
opposition to this move, which seriously harms the
feelings of those victimized by Japanese
militarism during World War II, and that will
undermine the political basis for ties between
China and Japan."
The Chinese Foreign
Ministry summoned Japanese Ambassador Yuji
Miyamoto to protest. Beijing has shunned summit
talks with Koizumi for more than a year.
South Korea said it was disappointed and
infuriated. The Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry
summoned Japanese Ambassador Shotaro Oshima,
saying Koizumi had "strained South Korea-Japan
relations and damaged friendly and cooperative
ties in Northeast Asia".
August 15 is a
highly symbolic date in South Korea because it
also marks the country's liberation from Japan's
1910-45 colonial rule.
Meanwhile, it is
almost certain the pros and cons of such visits by
a premier and how to repair seriously damaged
relations with Asian neighbors will be the biggest
issues in the LDP presidential election.
Defending Koizumi's shrine visits, many
conservatives in Japan have lashed out at China
and South Korea for what they describe as an
interference in the internal affairs. But critics
say the harsh reactions of Beijing and Seoul are
quite natural and understandable.
as the visits, 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 right-wing
scholars. Diplomatic tensions are also running
high between Tokyo and Beijing over Chinese
natural-gas projects in disputed waters in the
East China Sea.
After he made his October
2005 visit, China apparently abandoned hopes for
improvement in chilly ties with Japan under
Koizumi. Rather, China apparently has focused on
sending a thinly veiled message to Japan: if
Koizumi's successor learns from what happened to
Sino-Japanese ties in recent years and eschews a
visit to Yasukuni Shrine, bilateral summits will
be held again and derailed relations will be back
on a sound track.
However, there is no
good reason now to become optimistic that Japan's
relations with China and South Korea will take a
turn for the better with next month's departure of
Koizumi, who is regarded by Beijing and Seoul as
the cause of ties being hurt.
recently that Shinzo Abe, the chief cabinet
secretary and front-runner in the race to succeed
Koizumi, had made a secret visit to Yasukuni in
April. Abe did not confirm or deny he had made the
visit, but said the war dead deserved respect. He
is Koizumi's apparent favorite among potential
Abe has been to the shrine
many times, but the April visit was his first
since he was appointed top government spokesman
last autumn. Previous top government spokespersons
had eschewed visits to the shrine out of
foreign-policy consideration to Asian neighbors.
Abe said his desire to pay his respects to
the war dead had not changed, but he refused to be
drawn on his plans.
"Since this had
developed into a diplomatic and political issue, I
have said that I have no intention to say whether
I would or would not go there or have or have not
visited there, and this stance has not changed,"
Abe is widely seen as a hawkish,
anti-China and conservative. Now that he has
visited the shrine in April, he will probably not
visit at least through the end of this year, even
if he becomes prime minister next month.
Among other potential candidates, Finance
Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, who is widely seen as
a moderate and relatively pro-China politician,
has been critical of Koizumi's visits. He was also
quick to criticize Abe's April visit and Koizumi's
candidate, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, is also
widely seen as a hawkish and anti-China
politician. Aso and Abe have supported Koizumi's
visits. But Aso has begun to indicate recently
that he will not visit the shrine if he becomes
the next premier.
Japanese public opinion
has been split almost down the middle over
Koizumi's visits. In addition to opposition
parties, the LDP's junior coalition partner, the
New Komeito party, which is backed by Japan's
largest lay-Buddhist group, Soka Gakkai, has been
critical of Koizumi's visits.
last month suggested that more than half of
Japanese do not want their next prime minister to
continue the visits. Even a poll conducted this
month by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun national
daily, which has supported Koizumi's visits,
showed that 50% of respondents object to a shrine
visit by the next prime minister, as against 40%
who supported it.
There is also pressure
from the business community, which fears that the
ongoing row could harm economic ties with China,
now Japan's largest trading partner and most
favored investment destination. There are also
growing concerns, even in the United States,
Japan's closest ally, that the protracted standoff
between Japan and its Asian neighbors might
isolate Japan in the region, thereby hurting US
is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and
scholar on international politics and economy.
Masaki's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.