Way to go, Mr. Sensitive. From Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 16:
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo on Tuesday–the 61st anniversary of the end of World War II–writing his name as prime minister in the shrine’s visitors’ book.
Although Koizumi has visited the shrine annually since taking office, he has always avoided visiting the shrine on Aug. 15 in light of opposition from China and South Korea. He made a public promise during the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election in 2001 to visit the shrine every year on the anniversary of the war’s cessation.
Koizumi, who will step down in September, finally fulfilled his promise in his last year in office, defying critics who objected to the visits on the grounds that Class-A war criminals were enshrined alongside the war dead.
This was the first visit made on Aug. 15 by an incumbent prime minister in 21 years. The last similar occasion was in 1985 when then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone paid his respects.
The Chinese and South Korean governments have harshly criticized Koizumi’s visit, ensuring that the Yasukuni issue will be a major topic of debate in September’s LDP leadership race, political observers said.
It was Koizumi’s sixth trip to the shrine as prime minister, his previous visit being made on Oct. 17, 2005.
Koizumi, dressed in a morning coat, arrived at the shrine in an official vehicle at 7:40 a.m.
He wrote “Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister” in the visitors’ book before entering the shrine’s main building at 7:47 a.m. He offered 30,000 yen of his own money for flowers.
Last year, Koizumi refrained from entering the main building–the usual formal practice in full-fledged Shinto worship–choosing instead to offer a prayer in front of the building, seen as a low-key approach to try to minimize the political backlash at home and abroad.
This year, Koizumi entered the main building of the shrine, repeating the pattern of worship that he and Nakasone had followed previously.
After returning to the Prime Minister’s Office, Koizumi told reporters: “Visits like last year’s [conducted outside the main building] make security matters difficult. Considering such factors, I judged it was appropriate to pay my respects inside the main building.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the candidate most likely to succeed Koizumi, visited the shrine in April. Koizumi’s visit on Aug. 15–historically, the most sensitive of dates–was also geared toward making it easier for his successor to continue the annual visits, LDP sources said.
Opposing the practice, China and South Korea have refused to hold summit talks with Japan since April 2005 and November 2005, respectively.
In the LDP presidential race, debate will likely intensify over whether it is appropriate for the nation’s prime minister to worship at the shrine; whether Class-A war criminals should be separately enshrined from the war dead; and whether Yasukuni Shrine should be transformed into a nonreligious organization.
Concerns had been voiced regarding Koizumi’s latest visit after memos came to light in July that indicated Emperor Showa, while still reigning, voiced displeasure with the shrine’s decision to enshrine Class-A war criminals with the war dead.
Speaking of his decision to attend the shrine on the historically sensitive date, Koizumi said: “The same criticism and opposition emerged even when I avoided Aug. 15. So, it makes no difference which date I go. ”
“If that is so, today was the appropriate day, was it not? The national ceremony to commemorate war victims is being held today, and later, I’m going to visit the graveyard for war victims in Chidorigafuchi [a district near the Imperial Palace] to offer prayers,” he added.
Asked about his stance on his shrine visits, Koizumi answered: “An individual named Junichiro Koizumi, who happens to work as prime minister, visited the shrine. I didn’t visit in my capacity as an official.”
Koizumi categorized reasons for domestic criticism of his visits into three categories:
— Opposition from China and South Korea.
— Objections to the joint enshrinement of Class-A war criminals with the war dead.
— Claims that his visits contravene the constitutional principle of a separation between the state and religion.
Regarding opposition from abroad, Koizumi said: “Some people believe that if we only listened to what China and South Korea have to say, our Asian diplomacy would run smoothly. This is not necessarily correct.”
Its a particualr irony of Japanese political culture that the imperial family is more progressive than the elected politicans in this matter. As noted, Emperor Hirohito (posthumously Showa) objected to the enshirnement of the 14 Class A war criminals at Yasukuni in 1978—including War Minister Hideki Tojo, executed by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1948. The last of Hirohito’s eight post-war visits to the shrine to honor Japan’s 2.47 million war dead was in 1975, and his reiging son Akihito has never visited.
Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Taro Aso made the absurdly impolitic suggestion that Emperor Akihito visit the shrine instead of the prime minister: “From the viewpoint of the spirits of the war dead, they shouted ‘Bonzai’ for the Emperor—none of them said long live the prime minister. A visit by the Emperor would be best.” (China Daily, Jan. 29)
Cabinet chief Shinzo Abe, Koizumi’s likely sucessor, defended Aso’s comments as his personal view—a comment dismissed by critics as just as disingenuous as Koizumi’s own claim to only visit Yasukuni as a private citizen, despite signing the guest register with his title as prime minister. (Japan Economic Newswire, Jan. 30) Abe himself paid a visit to Yasukuni in April, as an outraged cartoon in Korea’s Chosun Ilbo notes. “Ah, you beat me to it this year!” a delighted Koizumi says, signing the guestbook at the shrine under the signature of his heir apparent Abe, dated April 15. The grinning imperial war criminals on the wall behind chorus, “Great job picking your successor!” (Chosun Ilbo, Aug. 16)
Meanwhile, exemplifying the increasingly creepy atmosphere, the Yasukuni authorities have banned reporters from the newspaper Asahi Shimbun from entering the site to cover Koizumi’s visit after the paper ran a story on the shrine’s real estate holdings. (Mainichi Daily News, Aug. 16)
See our last post on revisionism and remilitarization in Japan.