Watch Koizumi on WW2 Anniversary
Japanese PM may make first Aug. 15 visit to war shrine
With just a week to go before Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, speculation is rife that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may visit a controversial Tokyo shrine on that day for the first time.
If Koizumi actually does so, it will certainly draw an unprecedented barrage of criticism from Japan's Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea, which are both victims of Japan's wartime atrocities and regard Yasukuni Shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. Along with some 2.5 million war dead, 14 Class-A war criminals, including former Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, are enshrined at the Shinto shrine.
Since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has made a pilgrimage to the shrine once every year. But he has avoided the highly publicized anniversary of Aug. 15. He took the helm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and government after winning the LDP presidential race on a pledge to visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15. Koizumi is to step down next month when his current three-year term as LDP president -- and hence premier -- expires. So, the upcoming anniversary will be his last chance to follow through on the pledge he made more than five years ago.
Koizumi told reporters on Sunday that he is ready to visit the shrine "at any time," but as he had customarily done recently, he did not specify when. He said, "I will decide on the timing of a visit appropriately." He was in Hiroshima to attend the annual memorial ceremony to mark the U.S. atomic bombing of the city in World War II. He last visited Yasukuni Shrine on Oct. 17, 2005.
For Koizumi, not worshipping at the shrine on Aug. 15 has been a concession to China and South Korea. But for the two neighbors, his repeated shrine visits are an unforgivable slap in the face, regardless of their timing. Angered by Koizumi's shrine visits, Beijing has shunned summit talks with the Japanese leader for over a year.
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 Yasukuni Shrine. Diplomatic tensions are also running high between Tokyo and Beijing over Chinese natural gas projects in the disputed waters in the East China Sea.
During a visit to Canada last month, Koizumi defended his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, saying the visits were a matter of personal freedom. "Even if I visit the shrine many times, it's all right. It's a matter of personal freedom," Koizumi said. The prime minister also said early this month that he believed it was important to mourn the war dead, on whose "precious sacrifices" Japan's current peace and prosperity had been built. "I think that offering sincere condolences for those who died in war in whatever style is a matter of individual freedom," he wrote in a weekly email newsletter. These remarks were taken by some as an effective prior announcement of his plan to visit the shrine soon, possibly on Aug. 15.
A note showing that the late Emperor Showa had expressed displeasure at the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine has recently been disclosed. It has been widely known that Emperor Showa, father of Emperor Akihito, had not paid a visit to the shrine since the war criminals were enshrined in 1978, but the reason why had not been disclosed. But Koizumi has categorically denied that the disclosed note will affect his future pilgrimages to the shrine.
The discovery of the note taken by a former aide to the Emperor Showa has added fuel to a debate on whether to separate the war criminals. Even Nippon Izokukai, an organization of bereaved families of war dead, has recently decided to consider separating the war criminals from the other war dead enshrined at the shrine. The organization will begin the consideration after the LDP presidential election to choose Koizumi's successor, slated for Sept. 20.
After Koizumi made his last shrine visit, China apparently abandoned hopes for an 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.
At this moment, however, there is no good reason 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 root of all evil that seriously hurt the ties.
It emerged recently that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the race to succeed Koizumi, had made a secret visit to Yasukuni Shrine in April. Abe did not confirm or deny he had made the visit, but said the war dead deserved respect. Abe has visited the shrine many times in the past, but the April visit was his first since he was appointed the top government spokesman last autumn.
Abe said his desire to pay his respects to the war dead had not changed, but refused to be drawn on his future 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," he said. Abe is widely seen as a hawkish, anti-China and conservative politician.
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 shrine visits. He was also quick to criticize Abe's visit. Another potential candidate, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, is also widely seen as a hawkish and anti-China politician like Abe. Aso and Abe have supported Koizumi's shrine visits. But Aso has begun to indicate recently that he himself will not visit the shrine if he becomes the next premier.
Now that former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, a moderate politician who is critical of Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, bowed out of the race to succeed Koizumi last month, it is widely believed that the highly popular Abe will coast to victory in the LDP presidential race. Abe is Koizumi's apparent favorite among the potential successors.
The Japanese public opinion has been evenly split over Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Two polls last month suggested, however, that more than half of the Japanese public do not want their next prime minister to continue the visits. There is also pressure from the business community, who fear that the ongoing row could harm economic ties with China, now Japan's largest trading partner and most favorite investment destination. There are also growing concerns, even in the U.S., Japan's closest ally, that the protracted standoff between Japan and its Asian neighbors might isolate Japan in the region, hurting U.S. interests there.
Koizumi's shrine visits have also spawned several lawsuits claiming they violated the constitutional separation of state and religion. Koizumi's last shrine visit -- on Oct. 17, 2005 -- came 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 had been ruled unconstitutional by a high court.
Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.