When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was in Moscow last month to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he found he had a little time on his hands. According to reports in several weeklies, Koizumi originally planned to spend one day in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk talking to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but the recent diplomatic freeze put a kibosh on that. So, with nothing better to do, the prime minister did what he does best: He visited cemeteries.

Koizumi may simply have wanted an excuse to wear his new winter hat, but the ostensible purpose of the visits was to lay wreaths on the graves of Japanese who had died in Russia. In any case, nobody complained, and when he returned he approval ratings had increased.

It’s impossible to know whether or not the upward spike was the result of the graveyard visits or the hat, but it may have inspired the prime minister into making his “surprise” visit to Yasukuni Shrine a day later on Jan. 14. The official media line is that Koizumi wanted to get his “annual visit” out of the way as soon as possible so that it might be forgotten by South Korea’s President-elect Roh Moo Hyun by the time he takes office Feb. 25. Koizumi denies that there is any special reason for the timing other than he thought the New Year offered an opportunity to honor the dead and pray for peace in a “fresh spirit.”

Naturally, South Korea and China denounced Japan as refusing to let go of its imperialist past, and rightwing groups and conservative media organizations replied, “So what?” Shukan Bunshun called the liberal dailies Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun, who always decry the visits, “Pavlov’s dogs.”

The knee-jerk response has become so automatic that the controversy has completely lost its meaning to the average Japanese citizen. The Feb. 3 issue of Aera ran the results of a survey of more than 500 people regarding the Jan. 14 visit. Slightly less than half the respondents were split evenly between those who approved of the Koizumi visit and those who disapproved. The remaining 52 percent didn’t have an opinion or declined to give one. Similarly, when asked if they themselves wanted to visit the shrine, which contains the souls of all the Japanese who died in the Pacific War, including those of convicted war criminals, about half declined to comment, with the remainder split evenly between wanting to go and not wanting to go.

Taken at face value, these results seem to indicate that people are becoming less interested in the issue, but as a sociologist who studied the findings pointed out, if you compare these numbers to past surveys, it’s easy to see that more people are starting to feel less negatively toward the Yasukuni visits.

In the past, there was a much higher percentage of respondents who disapproved. The increase in the number of people who won’t comment is directly related to Koizumi’s “effectiveness” in making the Yasukuni issue his own. Because of his initial popularity, more people paid attention to his visits and began wondering what the big deal was.

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents were under 40, and among these who responded positively to Koizumi’s visit were many who said things like “other countries have no right to complain,” or “it’s only natural to honor people who died in a war,” apparently unaware that the shrine was built for the purpose of glorifying war.

Even Koizumi doesn’t seem to realize this. Whenever he visits, he says he does so to “relish peace” and “offer prayers” that Japan will never be involved in another conflict. Those are fundamentally meditative acts, and can be performed as effectively in the privacy of one’s bathroom as in a place of religious worship. The whole point of going to Yasukuni Shrine is not to pray there, but to be seen praying there.

It’s no secret that Koizumi and the Liberal Democratic Party are politically beholden to rightwing interests that insist they pay their respects at Yasukuni, and while it’s impossible to do so without causing a ruckus, Koizumi is determined to cause as small a ruckus as possible. So he’s devised these surprise visits, wherein the press isn’t alerted of his intention until just before he leaves.

And alerted they are, because whether an individual media organ agrees with the visits or not, it will cover them, and coverage is the most important part of the visits. But as these visits become less rare, the press no longer feels obliged to discuss the reason they’re still controversial, and thus younger people don’t understand why China, Korea and all those old hippies get in a huff over it.

It’s easy to believe that Koizumi himself doesn’t really grasp the meaning of what he’s doing. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a genuine rightwinger, stopped going to Yasukuni. He lived through the war. He knew what the shrine stood for.

Koizumi doesn’t. He just enjoys the ceremonial trappings of his job, and he’ll defy anyone who tries to prevent him dressing up and assuming his gravest air. Such gestures mean nothing without cameras to record them, but the media keeps asking the wrong question. It’s not: Should the prime minister visit Yasukuni Shrine? But rather: What would happen if the prime minister visited Yasukuni Shrine and nobody else showed up?