New war memorial is old idea back in the spotlight


The concept of a new national memorial for the war dead, on ice for years for political reasons, has returned to the spotlight as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi finds himself in a regional diplomatic deadlock.

But despite growing attention for the proposal, it is unlikely the idea would put an end to Tokyo’s diplomatic woes even if it were to be adopted, largely because Koizumi appears determined to continue his contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine, according to political insiders.

“So far, the prime minister has kept speaking based on his belief that he should go” to the Tokyo shrine, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Tuesday. “We need more discussion to make a decision” regarding a new memorial.

Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni, which served as a spiritual pillar for Japanese nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s and now honors 14 Class-A war criminals along with the war dead, have especially angered China and South Korea, which claim visits by a prime minister indicate Japan has not seriously searched its soul over its war responsibility.

After his Monday summit with Koizumi in Seoul, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun explained that he and Koizumi agreed Japan would consider building a new memorial. Such a facility was originally proposed in December 2002 by a private advisory panel to then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

Appearing on Sunday TV talk shows last weekend, executives of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito floated the idea of allocating research funds for the new memorial hall in the fiscal 2006 budget, whose compilation begins this summer.

But regardless of the renewed interest, Koizumi appears determined to continue visiting Yasukuni.

The idea of the new memorial dates to Aug. 13, 2001, when Koizumi visited Yasukuni for the first time as prime minister and drew strong protests from China and South Korea.

In Shanghai that October, Koizumi promised then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung he would consider a new national war memorial where anyone could go without creating a fuss, and two months later launched an advisory panel to discuss the issue.

The panel submitted its final report in December 2002, recommending that the government build a secular memorial for all war dead regardless of nationality or military or civilian status.

“Japan has not sufficiently sent its messages home and abroad about its prewar behavior regarding peace and war, and its postwar activities for international peace,” the report said.

Visits by a prime minister to Yasukuni have been particularly contentious because the shrine openly defends the Class-A war criminals, and political forces supporting the shrine often argue that the war Japan waged in the 1930s and 1940s was for self-defense and not one of aggression.

The report’s recommendations were shelved as the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, one of the strongest pressure groups for the LDP and the main supporter of Yasukuni Shrine, strongly opposes construction of a new war memorial.

Supporters of Yasukuni Shrine fear a new national memorial could replace the shrine as the spiritual bastion for patriotism in Japan.

“The possibility is high that this new facility and Yasukuni Shrine would be essentially incompatible and conflict with each other,” Kokugakuin University professor Yasuo Ohara said in an article carried on the shrine’s official Web site. “That’s the main reason we oppose its construction.”

Apparently with that concern in mind, LDP lawmakers, including Koizumi and Hosoda, have repeatedly stressed that a new national memorial hall “would not replace” Yasukuni.

At the same time, Hosoda also stressed that construction of the new memorial hall would not prevent future prime ministers from visiting Yasukuni, arguing the government cannot prohibit them from going to the shrine because, he claimed, such visits are “private” in the first place.

Political sensitivity over views on the war also prompted the panel that compiled the 2002 report to leave the characteristics of the proposed memorial intentionally vague.

Over 12 months of sessions, the panel agreed that interpretation of the hall should be left to each visitor, and that it would not decide whether the Class-A war criminals would be included among “the war dead” for whom the memorial would be dedicated, according to summarized minutes released by the government.

One of the 10 panel members had already expressed concern about the future of the memorial hall even before the final report was compiled.

“If the possibility of official visits (by a prime minister) is left open even after construction of (a new memorial) is decided, issues about official visits cannot be resolved or could become even more complex,” this panel member, whose name has not been made public, was quoted as saying in the summarized minutes.

“I’m concerned about that,” the member said.

Meanwhile, Tsuguo Morita, vice chairman of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, said the group will continue to oppose a new national memorial, even if Koizumi promises to keep visiting Yasukuni Shrine during his term.

“Mr. Koizumi may keep going to Yasukuni, but we won’t know about other prime ministers (in the future),” Morita said during a telephone interview with The Japan Times.

“There is a possibility that Yasukuni Shrine could lose substance and become a mere shell,” the former House of Councilors member said.