For Koizumi, Yasukuni risks far outweigh benefits

Asian diplomacy, public opinion polls, New Komeito's wishes among reasons for noshow

by Reiji Yoshida

As many people both at home and abroad waited with bated breath, the 60th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender came and went Monday with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

The prime minister kept mum in the evening when asked why he did not go, but the decision was apparently made to avoid further damage to his poor record in the realm of diplomatic affairs ahead of the Sept. 11 general election, observers said.

Koizumi did not state clearly why he did not make the visit on the commemorative date, but earlier in the day issued a statement of apology for past aggression by Japan.

“I have repeatedly said I would make an appropriate decision on the matter,” Koizumi told reporters in the evening.

Election analyst Hiroshi Miura said last week that a visit on Aug. 15 would result in strong negative repercussions from other Asian countries.

“I don’t think it would be an advantage for him in the election” on the whole, Miura said.

Yasukuni Shrine honors and enshrines 2.47 million military personnel who gave their lives for the nation as well as 14 convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II, including Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Some Chinese media had speculated that Koizumi might visit Yasukuni Shrine in an attempt to win more votes in the upcoming election by fanning nationalist sentiment among voters.

But in reality, the story is not that simple. Media opinion polls suggest that more Japanese now oppose Koizumi’s visit to the Shinto shrine compared with similar surveys conducted this spring. However, the numbers are not such that it can decisively be said voters back one position more than the other.

According to an April poll by the Mainichi Shimbun, 45 percent of respondents said Koizumi should stop visiting Yasukuni, while 42 percent said he should continue doing so.

But as relations with Beijing became increasingly rocky, more people started opposing the visits. In a July poll by the same paper, 51 percent opposed them, while 39 percent backed Koizumi’s actions.

Difficulty in getting a bearing on where the electorate stands on his Yasukuni pilgrimages is not the only reason Koizumi did not visit Monday, political sources say.

His main strategy for winning the Sept. 11 race is by simplifying the campaign to make postal privatization the sole issue, they argue.

The prime minister is now focused on trying to win votes by categorically labeling all candidates opposed to privatization as “antireformers.” Bringing other controversial issues to the election could increase the risk factor for Koizumi’s campaign.

“I don’t at all intend to make Yasukuni a focal issue in the election. Only some media are trying to do so,” Koizumi told a news conference Aug. 8.

What is more, with an election looming, the prime minister must take into account the demands of New Komeito, the junior partner in the ruling coalition.

New Komeito, whose main support group is Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, has opposed the prime minister’s visits to the Shinto shrine.

Top party executives have repeatedly warned that if Koizumi visits the shrine, it could adversely affect the mobilization of Soka Gakkai members to support LDP members in the upcoming elections.

“I don’t want the prime minister to do something that would throw cold water on our electoral cooperation,” New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki said on a TV talk show Sunday.