Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision Monday to bring forward his controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine may have saved face for opponents at home and abroad to a certain degree.
But the move may damage his public image as a colorful leader who keeps his word.
As a positive, Koizumi’s decision to avoid making his visit to the Shinto shrine on today’s anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender prevented a critical rift between the prime minister and a key coalition partner of his Liberal Democratic Party.
Koizumi, who will need the ruling camp’s cooperation to push his economic reform agenda in the autumn Diet session, eventually accepted a proposal made by the secretaries general of the three parties to avoid a visit today.
No prime minister has made an Aug. 15 pilgrimage to the shrine since Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985.
The proposal reportedly came from China and was passed onto the three ruling camp heavyweights when they visited Beijing last month.
Koizumi’s decision may therefore help mollify criticism from China. In recent months, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing have been strained over a series of disputes, ranging from a history textbook row to Japan’s import restrictions on agricultural products that mostly come from China.
But critics argue that bringing his visit forward was merely an attempt to sidestep the fundamental debate over the shrine.
“Making the visit two days earlier will not change the international evaluation of Tokyo’s diplomacy,” said political commentator Minoru Morita. “The position of the Koizumi administration in international relations has only worsened.”
Observers also say that Koizumi’s image will likely be tarnished as a result of his decision.
“He has stressed too much since April that he will definitely visit the shrine on Aug. 15,” said Morita. “From now, the media will repeatedly point to his past remarks contradicting his actual action, seriously collapsing his man-of-his-word image.”
He said Koizumi’s compromise may also encourage LDP members who oppose his reform initiatives, as they will perceive that Koizumi will capitulate if they keep objecting.
“Koizumi may see the real consequences (of his decision) in a month or two,” Morita said, noting that a tug-of-war between reform supporters and opponents is expected to heat up in the fall as the government’s yearend deadline for compiling the budget draws near.
“A remark by a politician, if it’s too clear or too bold, always rebounds on him or herself like a boomerang,” Morita said. “This was one such example.”
Many observers share the view that the prime minister should have been more careful in promising to visit Yasukuni on the anniversary. Some criticize Koizumi for not taking into account past debate over similar visits by his predecessors.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda meanwhile argued, “It was not the best decision but the best option among those available.”
Political scientist Fukashi Horie, president of the Shobi Gakuen University in Saitama Prefecture, agrees: “Given that Koizumi has already announced his plan to visit Yasukuni, there was no choice other than this if you consider the present political circumstances in Japan.
“I think the decision minimized the points lost, especially in terms of diplomacy. He may suffer some setback domestically, but may be able to bring some of his reform opponents to his side now that they know the prime minister can listen to them and change his mind.”