Record 168 lawmakers visit Yasukuni

Controversial trip expected to strain already rocky relations with neighbors

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

A record 168 Diet members visited Tokyo’s war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday following visits by three Cabinet ministers and offerings by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday.

The group of lawmakers from various parties — the largest number since 1989, when head counts first began — visited the controversial Shinto shrine on the last day of its annual three-day spring festival despite warnings from China and South Korea.

Seoul has already canceled a trip to Japan by its foreign minister in protest of the Cabinet members’ visits.

None of Abe’s ministers were among the 168 who went Tuesday to the shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, including convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II, but scores of vice ministers and other top lawmakers, as well as Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Sanae Takaichi, offered prayers.

A large majority of the group consisted of LDP lawmakers. The spike in the number of those visiting the shrine is believed to have resulted from an increase in the number of conservative rookie lawmakers who won seats in December’s Lower House election.

“I am very grateful that such a large number of lawmakers visited Yasukuni this time,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, an LDP Lower House lawmaker who heads a group campaigning for official visits to the shrine.

Although the government has maintained the position that it is normal for a lawmaker to honor people who have sacrificed their life for the country, the large-scale visit could further strain already rocky diplomatic relationships with neighboring countries.

South Korea on Monday canceled its foreign minister’s scheduled trip to Japan in the wake of the visits by Abe’s Cabinet ministers on Sunday, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Yoshitaka Shindo, the minister of internal affairs and grandson of the general who commanded the Imperial Japanese Army defending Iwojima in 1945.

China lodged diplomatic protests with Japan over “negative behavior” with respect to the visits by Cabinet members, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.

Hua stressed that the Yasukuni issue is connected to whether Japan has faced up to its history of militarist aggression and whether it can respect the feelings of the countries it attacked.

On Tuesday, the three ministers rebutted criticism that their weekend visit to the shrine will undermine relations with other nations.

“I visit (the shrine) two or three times a year,” Aso, who doubles as finance minister, said at a news conference. “I don’t think (the visit) will have an influence on our diplomacy.”

While Abe only offered a “masakaki” tree branch traditionally used in Shinto religious rituals, it remains uncertain whether he will forgo visiting the shrine Aug. 15 (the day Japan surrendered in World War II) or during the shrine’s autumn festival.

During his previous stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe did not visit Yasukuni after repeated visits by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, angered Japan’s neighbors.

Last October, he visited the shrine during the autumn festival in the capacity of LDP leader.

Since becoming prime minister again in December, Abe has said it was “extremely regrettable” that he could not visit the shrine when he was previously in office.

Information from Kyodo added

  • phu

    I personally believe the Japanese — including politicians — should have the freedom to visit whatever shrine they want.

    However, as Japanese politician, these people are responsible for the immediate future of a nation that has some very difficult and serious problems. Their actions should be governed, to as much of an extent is possible, on what’s best for their country.

    This most decidedly does not pass that test. Should you be allowed to visit Yasukuni shrine? Yes, absolutely. Should you do it? Absolutely not! When you can be reasonably certain that fragile relationships are going to suffer because of it, this is a dangerously irresponsible move.

    Military tensions aside, if Japanese politicians continue to stubbornly and openly earn the ire of their southeast Asian neighbors, the Japanese people and economy will continue to suffer for it, and “recovery” will continue to be nothing but a ridiculous election promise.

    This clearly shows that Abe and his cabinet do not have the Japanese people’s best interests at heart, and if they can’t figure that out, Japan’s future is looking even worse than its present. Ganbare; you’ll need it.

    • YourMessageHere

      I see this as an assertion of sovereignty, and of authority. If politicians stay away because other countries want them to, it sends a message. It tells politicians in other countries that they can influence Japanese domestic policy; that they can tell Japan what to do. That should be discouraged. It also tells them that their complaints are legitimate, which in my view they aren’t (you may feel differently, let’s not argue about this).

      And what would it tell the Japanese electorate if their politicians do as other countries tell them? People who may very likely have relatives enshrined at Yasukuni? How would you feel if someone in another country said your elected representative couldn’t honour the war dead who died for their country and people – and your elected rep listened and didn’t do it?

      So far as I’m concerned it’s a matter of personal choice for each person how they conduct their lives and this is one aspect of that. They should do as they see fit, and be respected for it.

      • KenjiAd

        I see where you are coming from, and I agree, in principle, with your last paragraph (“it’s a matter of personal choice…”).

        But I differ from you in that the Japanese politicians should have been respectful, not just for the Japanese war dead, but also for the Chinese war dead (mostly civilians) too. They could have visited the shrine privately without making any noise.

        There is a difference between, for example, a) relatives of former Nazi members visiting tombs of the ex-Nazi’s privately and b) the same relatives publicly participating in a ceremony that most Jewish people would interpret as glorifying the Nazi Germany.

        This type of Yasukuni visit is alarmingly close to the latter (b). Although this incident has not been heavily reported here (China) yet, if that happens, it will rub the nerves of most Chinese people the wrong way.

        Finally, I think you are mistaken in thinking that Chinese government wants Japanese politicians to refrain from Yasukuni visit. There are a lot of things going on politically in China, and the Chinese government hardly has a single voice as it pretends to do. The hardliners here may be popping champagne now, because this Yasukuni visit “proved” that they are right all along – Japan is dangerous.

        The irony of all is that the vast majority of people, both in Japan and China, do not want this tension escalating to a point of no return. Yet some politicians want exactly that. They take advantage of people natural nationalistic sentiment and inflame it to the best they can.

        We all know where that would lead to. Politicians don’t die. We do.

      • YourMessageHere

        I agree that Japanese politicians should be respectful. I think the same group of 168 should now go to Nanjing and pay their respects there; I feel that would be a very productive exercise for all concerned.

        So far as I can see, they are not the ones making the noise; they are a cross-party group and they visited as a group on the occasion of Yasukuni’s annual festival. The media picked up on it and span it. Note there were no announcements of intent to do this, they simply did it. Also, I’m not certain if this was any kind of ceremony. It certainly wasn’t an ‘incident’ until others decided it was.

        The article says “China lodged diplomatic protests with Japan over “negative behavior” with respect to the visits by Cabinet members” which seems a pretty clear indication that they don’t want people going there. Of course there are different viewpoints and factions within the Chinese government, but it’s what happens and is seen to happen that is important.

      • phu

        That’s a very idealistic and naive way to look at it. You’re not wrong in any way until you actually look at the messy reality of the issue, which is that this “assertion of sovereignty, and authority” undermines Japan’s own ability to interact and deal effectively with the international community. That is in no way useful to the future of Japan.

        Rhetoric about war dead is what’s causing this issue on all sides; it’s not going to solve it. Yes, I’m sure some Japanese (and politicians themselves, as well) have in the past been upset about politicians not visiting Yasukuni, but until now, they had the sense to avoid it for the sake of international relations.

        Yes, in a perfect world, it’d be a matter of personal choice and that’s it. This world is far from perfect, and making decisions as though it were is irrational for normal people and dangerously irresponsible for politicians, particularly those in such a sensitive position.

      • YourMessageHere

        I assure you, the idealism and naivety isn’t on my part. I know it could hurt Japan internationally. The thing is, Japan apparently struggles to understand the importance of how it is viewed internationally, at every level from the individual to the government.

        Japan is between a rock and a hard place here. It either does something for itself or follows the orders of others; in the first instance it will be called aggression and ‘dangerous’, in the second it is labelled ‘America’s Running Dog’ or similar and seen as weak. Policy so far has been closer to the latter; Abe seems (for better or worse) interested in trying the former.

        You’re right that rhetoric is the problem, and in the past Japan has said and done some really inadvisable things; here Japan has said nothing rhetorical and has let its actions speak. The thing is, this leaves the ball in the court of other nations. I think this is actually a better course of action than avoiding visits; the onus is now on Korea and China to react – or not – in a proportionate way. They are now the ones spouting the rhetoric – and how does Korea look internationally when it continually complains about things that have no discernable effect on them? International Relations go both ways.

  • Saim

    This is just a religious temple, why everyone so nervous about it…
    Past always trying to control the Future, we need to prevent such control.

  • Bill

    “…the government has maintained the position that it is normal for a lawmaker to honor people who have sacrificed their life for the country…”

    Lawmakers of Japan who visit Yasukuni based on the rationale that doing so is the best way to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for this country obviously do great harm to relations with other nations whose people Japan has inflicted suffering on in that past, despite Aso’s harebrained and laughable assertion that the visit will not “have an influence on our diplomacy.” These official visits are clearly bad for the security and economic vitality of Japan and the region at large.

    Given that, if these 168 lawmakers really must pay an official visit to Yasukuni, then I would hope to see these same lawmakers also make an equally government-sanctioned, high-profile visit to an equivalently major shrine honoring those hundreds of thousands who have suffered at the hands of Japan’s government and military — that is if any shrine does in fact exist in Japan. Doing so would help show the world that Japan is sincere about its wish not to repeat its role of either victim or perpetrator in any future military conflict.

  • Björn Mohns

    In a diplomatic way it is not so intelligent to visit the Yasukuni shrine this year due to the other conflicts with China and South Korea and I can understand those countries are not very amused about this act. Beside this it is difficult to have this connection between religion and state. Of course politicians should have the freedom to visit shrines, but as private people and not assembled as an act of state.

  • ume

    Why should they not go?

    In my opinion, it seems they are damned if they do, and damned if they dont.

    If they do go, they incur the wrath of the overseas angry squad – Korea and china.

    If they didnt go, they would incur the wrath of the Japanese for being un-nationalistic. At the end of the day, these are Japanese politicians, and should be allowed to visit Japanese shrines.

  • antony

    Outside of Japanese politics, the business world is pretty much in search of common denominators that will facilitate the removal of cross-cultural barriers in pursuit of a more fulfilling global economic environment. Pity the Japanese politicians/lawmakers seem to be walking in the opposite direction towards further isolationism. It can only make the going harder for everyone in the long run. I can imagine how the Europeans would feel if the German politicians/lawmakers honored their nazi war dead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/courtland.smith.52 Courtland Smith

    With one step forward, and two steps backward, Japan forges ahead.

    • TheEddmon .

      In Australia we celebrate ANZAC day, the day our troops invaded Turkey, im sure there could be arguments over what that invasion was about, the day now also celebrates other militarilistic adventures, Korea, Vietnam, afganistan. I think all these tributes to old wars and battles by all sides miss the central point, rather than glorify sacrafice they should question the waste.

  • KenjiAd

    For those of us Japanese expats who live and work in China, this incident surely creates yet another unnecessary headache. It gives a perfect ammunition to the hardline faction of China to strengthen their position, while weakening the moderate faction who wants to keep peace with Japan.

    Yasukuni is special not just because it enshrines class-A war criminals. Yasukuni is special because, like it not, the shrine is a symbol of Japan’s wrong war effort that created unspeakable horror to not just people in Asia, but also people in Japan, too.

    Are those politicians, including Abe, in the opinions that Japan had a noble intent when they invaded China? Do they feel that Japan isn’t responsible for the death and destruction in the 8-yr China-Japan war? I’d love to hear what they really think.

    I am also quite dismayed by the lame reaction shown by most of the major Japanese media. Why can’t they ask a simple question like “Mr Abe, which country do you think is responsible for millions of dead Chinese and Japanese civilians during WWII?” In America where I used to live for over 25 years, that’s the kind of question that I would expect journalists to ask. Japanese people deserve the answer.

    A Japanese expat in Wuhan, China

    • YourMessageHere

      I agree about the lack of inquisitiveness of Japanese media, however the thing about asking questions like that is that they do nothing constructive. Whatever answer he gave would do nothing and mean nothing. Japanese people already know the answer. I would rather they concentrate on modern issues, happening now, and let the past go.

    • Biwako

      Right there with you. Media needs to ask critical and decisive questions to evoke a sense of accountability. This denial of history hurts all involved and it is embarrassing to be represented by such insensitivity and ignorance.

    • WillA

      I’m an American, but believe me, the mainstream media in the U.S. are not always as inquisitive as they should be. Where was the questioning about the reasons for invading Iraq? And we Americans have yet to man up to the destruction we created in Vietnam.