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One year ago, a diplomatic row erupted over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 13 — two days before the anniversary of Japan’s surrender ending World War II — in the face of protests from China and South Korea.

This summer, things are quieter at the Tokyo shrine, which honors Japan’s military war dead as well as 14 wartime leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals by the Allied-led international tribunal. This is because Koizumi, who went to the shrine in April, promised not to return again this year.

But also low-key are the discussions launched by the government to create a new war memorial where the prime minister can pay tribute to the nation’s war dead without religious and international implications.

The memorial would serve as an alternative to Yasukuni and hopefully put an end to the often-repeated row over the Shinto shrine, which is considered by many as a symbol of Japan’s wartime nationalism.

Last December, an advisory panel to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda was established to debate the matter. Its discussions, however, appear to be making little headway and have stumbled over the basic question of whether such a facility is even necessary.

The 10-member panel, headed by Takashi Imai, honorary chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), was a product of the controversy triggered by Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni a year ago, his first as prime minister after taking the post in April 2001.

Whenever a prime minister visits the shrine, countries around Asia that suffered as a result of Japan’s wartime aggression and colonial rule express outrage, claiming Japan is reverting to its past militarism.

Domestically, critics charge that a visit to Yasukuni by the government leader violates the separation of state and religion specified in the Constitution.

With this in mind, Fukuda instructed the panel at is first meeting Dec. 19 to “freely discuss such issues as the necessity of a national (war memorial) facility, its name and its location,” and to hopefully reach a conclusion within one year.

Members of the panel remain sharply divided over the need for the alternative memorial.

Imai has yet to set a clear direction for the panel’s discussions, although a number of ideas have been floated for the memorial, including not specifying to whom it would be dedicated, and possibly including foreigners who died in Japan during the war.

“The government must seek ways to avoid raising the same political controversy over Yasukuni every year,” said panel member Akihiko Tanaka, a University of Tokyo professor who specializes in Asian studies and who supports creation of a new memorial to help improve Japan’s ties with its Asian neighbors.

Opponents, including Gakushuin University professor Takao Sakamoto argue that there is nothing wrong with Japanese leaders paying tribute to the nation’s war dead enshrined at Yasukuni, which they describe as the “spiritual center” that honors people who died for their country.

“I wonder if the public will really visit an alternative facility even if such a thing is created,” Sakamoto said after the panel’s first meeting, pointing out that nearly 6 million people visit Yasukuni annually.

Sakamoto is a hardline conservative who belongs to a group that publishes a history textbook seeking to change Japan’s “self-denigrating” view of its wartime past. The textbook itself caused a diplomatic row when the education ministry approved it for use in schools last year.

Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 — the year after the Meiji Restoration — and honors some 2.46 million Japanese who died serving the emperor in the country’s modern wars. In World War II, many Japanese soldiers are said to have shouted “We’ll meet at Yasukuni” when they faced death.

Under the postwar Constitution, the government was compelled to terminate all support for Yasukuni, which was converted into a private religious organization.

In 1959, a national cemetery for the war dead was built at Chidorigafuchi, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. Unlike Yasukuni, which names each person enshrined there, Chidorigafuchi houses the remains of 348,000 unidentified soldiers who died in battle outside Japan.

For decades after the war, prime ministers avoided visiting Yasukuni in their official capacity, until Yasuhiro Nakasone on Aug. 15, 1985.

Nakasone’s visit developed into a major diplomatic row with other parts of Asia victimized by Japan, and no prime minister has since visited the shrine on Aug. 15.

Political commentator Minoru Morita said the Koizumi government does not expect the panel to resolve fundamental questions surrounding Yasukuni.

“The panel has been created as a sort of ‘shock absorber’ to help ease Asia’s uproar against Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni last August,” Morita said. “It is natural, therefore, that there have been no substantial discussions by the panel.”

Morita said Koizumi’s April visit and his pledge not to return to the shrine this year “terminated the role of the panel.”

In fact, panel member Tanaka said, “This may sound strange, but thanks to Koizumi’s April visit, discussions have been relatively slow recently and we don’t share a sense of urgency now.”

Panel chairman Imai has decided not to draft a midterm report he had earlier planned to compile before Aug. 15, which would have outlined plans for a new war memorial.

But while its members make little progress toward solving an issue that still divides the nation, debate appears to be heating up outside the panel.

On June 11, nearly 2,100 people, including 125 lawmakers, gathered in Tokyo to oppose the construction of an alternative to Yasukuni.

Makoto Koga, former Liberal Democratic Party secretary general and head of the Japan War-Bereaved Association, sent a message to the gathering, which addressed concerns that the panel’s discussions could “ignore the sentiment of the war-bereaved and damage the raison d’etre of Yasukuni Shrine.”

The association, which represents relatives of those who died serving Japan in the Pacific War, is a solid vote-gathering machine for the LDP. Some critics claim that Koizumi’s promise during the LDP presidential race in April 2001 to visit Yasukuni as prime minister was aimed at obtaining support from the group.

In response, 12 lawyers, journalists, academics and others who advocate the creation of a national war memorial set up a group July 30, urging the government to quickly end the controversy surrounding Yasukuni by establishing an alternative to the Shinto shrine.

“It is problematic to establish Yasukuni Shrine as the spiritual center honoring Japan’s war dead, if we consider the role it played up to the end of World War II,” the group said in an inaugural statement. “This cannot be allowed under the Constitution.”

From China’s point of view, the solution to the Yasukuni issue would be to remove the 14 Class-A war criminals from the list of people honored at the shrine, according to Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Toyo Gakuen University specializing in Sino-Japanese relations.

“China cannot accept the fact that Class-A war criminals are enshrined there,” Zhu said.

“If they are separated from the shrine, China may stop making a fuss” because it believes that only Japan’s militarist leaders were responsible for the last war, he said. “People in Japan, China and other parts of Asia are all victims of the war.”

While it is up to Japanese people to decide on the course of discussions, Zhu suggested that Japan deal with the Yasukuni issue from the standpoint of its national interests.

“When I think of the importance of Asia for Japan’s diplomacy, I really wonder why Japanese prime ministers keep raising the same controversy every year,” Zhu said.

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