Staff writers One might wonder why Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is so bent on visiting Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, amid a steady outcry from Seoul and Beijing and opposition from inside his ruling camp.

“It is natural as a Japanese citizen and as the prime minister to pray for the souls of the war dead,” Koizumi said, stressing his intention is not to justify or glorify the war.

Critics say Koizumi’s personal belief is one thing and it is quite another for the nation’s leader to visit the Shinto shrine dedicated to the nation’s 2.4 million war dead since the mid-19th century, including Class A war criminals executed after World War II.

The issue of whether a prime minister’s visit to the shrine violates the constitutional separation of state and religion has been rekindled.

Some speculate that Koizumi’s stance may be aimed at bolstering his uncompromising image and maintaining public support — his political raison d’etre.

Media polls show that public opinion is split on the issue. An Asahi Shimbun poll earlier this week shows that 26 percent “actively” support Koizumi’s plan, while 65 percent say he should “carefully” consider the matter. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 40 percent support Koizumi’s plan and 34 percent oppose it.

But if Koizumi makes the visit, this will certainly deal a blow to Japan’s already strained relations with China and South Korea. As Aug. 15 nears, Beijing and Seoul are taking every diplomatic tack they can to convince Koizumi that a Yasukuni visit will inevitably damage relations.

“I told (Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka to tell Koizumi) not to go,” Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said after a meeting with Tanaka in Hanoi in late July. His remark angered Liberal Democratic Party members and Foreign Ministry officials, who said this was tantamount to interfering in Japan’s domestic affairs.

Tanaka, whose late father, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, normalized diplomatic ties with China in 1972, has repeatedly urged Koizumi to refrain from visiting Yasukuni.

Koizumi’s argument provides diplomats with a real headache.

“From the Chinese perspective, the Class A war criminals are the very people responsible for the war, so they cannot tolerate a prime minister, representing the state, offering prayers to them,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“We, of course, want the prime minister to drop his plan. But the matter is already beyond us,” he said on condition of anonymity.

The Yasukuni controversy comes on top of a series of rows that have strained Tokyo-Beijing ties since spring. These include the visit of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in April, the dispute over a Japanese school history textbook penned by a group of nationalist authors, and Japan’s import restrictions on agricultural products mostly shipped in from China.

Another Foreign Ministry official predicted that should Koizumi carry out his controversial visit, China would temporarily recall its ambassador to Tokyo.

“We will also naturally see protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, and possibly some negative impact on Japanese companies operating in China,” he said. “It’s really troublesome.”

Some also criticize Koizumi for fudging an issue that has nagged prime ministers in the past.

In 1975, Takeo Miki became the first postwar prime minister to visit the shrine on Aug. 15, although he said he was making the visit as a “private citizen.” After that, prime ministers made “private” visits to the shrine every year on the anniversary, out of concern that going in their official capacity could be deemed a violation of the separation of state and religion.

In 1985, Yasuhiro Nakasone became the first prime minister to declare he was making an “official” visit. Prior to this, a private advisory panel to then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Takao Fujinami issued a report saying a prime minister’s official visit would not violate the Constitution if he refrained from participating in Shinto rituals.

But Nakasone’s attempt backfired, incurring strong protests from China and South Korea. No prime minister has since visited the shrine on Aug. 15.

Koizumi himself argues that it is meaningless to try to differentiate between official and private visits by a prime minister, claiming he will go as “Junichiro Koizumi serving as prime minister.”

In 1999, in a bid to do away with the annual debate, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka proposed that the Class A war criminals be removed from the list of those honored at Yasukuni and enshrined elsewhere.

He also suggested the shrine be reorganized into a special nonreligious government-affiliated institution to end the debate over the separation of state and religion.

Nonaka effectively retracted his remark soon afterward, however, due to strong criticism from relatives of the war dead and from the shrine, which took his remark as political meddling in religion.

In another attempt to resolve the issue, Nonaka set up an LDP panel last year to discuss the Yasukuni issue, but has so far failed to come up with a viable alternative.

Meanwhile, New Komeito, a junior coalition partner of the LDP, which Koizumi heads, has expressed strong opposition to the visit and is calling for creation of a nonsectarian national cemetery instead. New Komeito is backed by Japan’s biggest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, which authorities oppressed before the war. Prewar Soka Gakkai Chairman Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was imprisoned on charges of lese-majeste for refusing to uphold state Shintoism. He was later tortured and died in prison in 1944.

Although a visit by the prime minister invariably provokes controversy, it is not unusual to see LDP members, including Cabinet ministers, at the shrine paying their respects on Aug. 15.

Political observer Minoru Morita noted that the Japan War-Bereaved Association, a group of relatives of the war dead and a longtime vote-gathering machine for the LDP, pressures party lawmakers to visit the shrine on the anniversary.

“The group has used the Yasukuni issue as a loyalty test” on whether to support LDP candidates in elections, Morita said, adding that such candidates had to make clear their intention to pay their respects at the shrine to gain the group’s support.

Although its political influence has waned in recent decades as its members have aged, the group still has more than 110,000 rank and file LDP members and has traditionally fielded candidates on the LDP ticket. Among such politicians are Hidehisa Otsuji, elected from the proportional representation system in the July 29 Upper House election with over 265,000 votes, and Upper House member Tsuguo Morita.

Earlier this week, a group of some 100 lawmakers and secretaries from the LDP and three other parties participated in a gathering expressing their support for Koizumi’s visit to the shrine.

Shoichi Nakagawa, a former farm minister and a senior member of the group, said it is natural for Koizumi to express gratitude for those who died for their country and vow to never again wage war.

“When I visit my constituency, there are many people who simply wonder why prime ministers in the past did not pay their respects at the shrine,” LDP member Kenzo Yoneda said.

The opposition camp is divided on the issue.

The Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party are strongly opposed to Koizumi’s plan, while most Liberal Party members support it.

Although senior members of the largest opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, say Koizumi should not visit the shrine on the anniversary in light of diplomatic repercussions, some party members said they support Koizumi’s plan.

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