Defying repeated warnings from China and South Korea, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday, the 61st anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, paying his respects at the Shinto site that honors the nation’s 2.5 million war dead and 14 Class-A war criminals.
It was Koizumi’s first visit on the emotional date, and his action fueled an immediate backlash from China and South Korea, which see the visits as symbolizing a national lack of repentance for atrocities Japan committed in other parts of Asia.
The visit was Koizumi’s sixth and last to the Tokyo shrine — the spiritual pillar of Japan’s fervent wartime militarism — since taking office as prime minister in April 2001. It was also the first Aug. 15 visit by a prime minister since 1985, when strong opposition from neighboring countries forced then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to avoid a trip the following year.
Koizumi will step down in September.
A stern-looking Koizumi appeared at the shrine at 7:40 a.m. in the rain, wearing a formal tailcoat instead of the business suit he wore last year.
He entered the shrine’s main chamber to pray, opting to be more formal than he was when he prayed at the altar for general worshippers last year. But he only bowed once, and did not follow the formal Shinto rite of making two bows followed by two claps and another bow.
He signed the Yasukuni guest book as “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi” and paid 30,000 yen of his own money for flowers.
Afterward, he repeated his usual defense of the visits.
“As I’ve said many times, I did not pray for specific people. I prayed for the war dead as a whole to express grief,” Koizumi told reporters.
“They (the war criminals) were punished because of the responsibility of the war, and they admitted it,” Koizumi said. “But this (praying for the dead) is a different matter.”
Asked if the visit was intended to be official, the prime minister answered: “I did not pray as part of my duty.”
The annual visits have severely strained ties with Japan’s neighbors.
Another troubling aspect of Koizumi’s contentious visits is whether they violate the Constitution, which stipulates the separation of religion and state.
Some courts have ruled that Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni violate Article 20 of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from engaging in religious activities. But two high court rulings on the constitutionality of the visits show that the judiciary is not clear on the issue.
Last Sept. 29, the Tokyo High Court ruled Koizumi’s past visits were private affairs. The next day, the Osaka High Court judged that the visits were made in his official capacity as prime minister and thus violated the Constitution.
Koizumi’s surrender-day visit is likely to spark further domestic debate about whether a prime minister or other government leaders should be allowed to visit Yasukuni and whether the shrine should continue honoring the war criminals.
The issue drew even more attention after it was revealed last month that the late Emperor Hirohito, known now as Showa, was upset by Yasukuni’s decision to enshrine the 14 Class-A war criminals and never visited the shrine again.
Koizumi’s visit fulfills a pledge he made in April 2001 during a Liberal Democratic Party presidential race that if elected he would visit the shrine on the surrender anniversary.
He had been avoiding such a powder-keg visit for the past five years out of concern over the reaction it would draw in Asia. But with his stint up in September, he decided to take the plunge.
Koizumi told reporters his stance is not inconsistent and that he decided to go on Aug. 15 because he is criticized no matter what day he visits.
“I have always been criticized and opposed, even when I avoided (visiting Yasukuni) on Aug. 15,” the prime minister said. “It doesn’t make any difference when I go.”
He also did not mention whether war criminals should be separated from the shrine. In the past he has said, ironically, that such comments would breach the constitutional separation of state and religion.
During Koizumi’s tenure, Japan’s ties with China and South Korea have plunged to their worst in decades.
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun called Tuesday on Japanese political leaders to repent their country’s past wrongdoings and end the visits to Yasukuni. South Korea and China summoned Japan’s ambassadors to lodge their protests.
Even Koizumi’s coalition government found fault with its leader.
“It is really regrettable that Prime Minister Koizumi visited Yasukuni today,” said Takenori Kanzaki, leader of coalition partner New Komeito. “I believe the government should construct a facility at which everyone can pray without any problems.”
Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki also criticized the visit.
However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the race for next prime minister, denied that growing tensions between Japan and the rest of Asia would affect the next administration.
In an attempt to ease regional tensions, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), an influential business lobby, urged Koizumi in May to stop going to Yasukuni, saying the annual visits were the main obstacle to improving ties.
Many other top Japanese business leaders also voiced concern with the way Koizumi was handling opposition from China and South Korea.
Later in the day, 56 other lawmakers visited Yasukuni, including two members of the Cabinet — National Public Safety Commission Chairman Tetsuo Kutsukake and agriculture minister Shoichi Nakagawa.
Several relatives of the war dead were at the shrine, including Yuko Tojo — granddaughter of wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.
“I thank Prime Minister Koizumi from the bottom of my heart for today’s visit, since he put away other countries’ interference in domestic affairs,” she said.
Tojo was the prime minister during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought the United States into the war.
Later in the day, Koizumi went to Nippon Budokan hall to attend the annual ceremony.
“Our country inflicted enormous loss and pain on many countries, particularly Asian countries,” Koizumi said. “On behalf of the Japanese people, I would like to earnestly mourn for those who were sacrificed, with deep reflection.”