Speculation over one question that could greatly affect Japan’s ties with Asian neighbors has been circulating in Nagatacho, Japan’s political epicenter.

At stake is whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

As the most memorable day for war veterans and their families approaches, lawmakers both in favor of and against a visit by Koizumi have stepped up their rhetoric.

The current Diet session is set to end Aug. 13, adding fuel to the speculation that Koizumi may visit the Shinto shrine after putting the political war over postal privatization behind him.

“We’d like Prime Minister Koizumi to proudly pay a visit to mark the 60th year (after the war’s end),” former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma told a meeting Tuesday of a nonpartisan group calling for an official visit by the prime minister to Yasukuni.

When he ran for Liberal Democratic Party president in 2001, Koizumi promised that he would visit the shrine on Aug. 15.

But faced with strong protests from China and South Korea, Koizumi has so far avoided visiting the shrine on that historic date, instead carefully choosing other dates for his annual pilgrimage.

What would make a visit by a prime minister to the Shinto shrine on Aug. 15 so controversial?

During Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s, Yasukuni Shrine, jointly managed by the army and navy, served as a spiritual pillar for patriotism and state Shintoism by honoring soldiers who died for the sake of the country and the emperor.

After Japan’s surrender, the U.S.-led Allied Powers issued an order prohibiting state Shintoism in December 1945, and the new U.S.-drafted Constitution that called for a strict separation of state and religion was introduced in May 1947.

At the urging of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, which has a lot of influence over the LDP, the party on five occasions from 1968 to 1973 submitted a bill that would again put Yasukuni under state control.

But each time the bill was scrapped amid fierce opposition from political and religious groups that feared a resurrection of the prewar militarism and called for strict adherence to the separation of state and religion.

In 1975, Takeo Miki became the first prime minister in the postwar period to visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15. He tried to get around the constitutional issue by declaring he went there “in the capacity of a private person,” rather than as leader of the government.

But Miki’s visit sparked another debate — over the distinction between an “official” and a “private” visit by a prime minister.

Meanwhile, it was learned in 1979 that in the previous year Yasukuni added 14 wartime leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals to its list of honored war dead.

Then on Aug. 15, 1985, Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Yasukuni in his “official capacity” as prime minister. But the visit created a serious diplomatic row with Japan’s Asian neighbors, and Nakasone had to stop his visits to Yasukuni in the following years. No prime minister has since visited the shrine on Aug. 15.

In 2001, Koizumi tried to visit the shrine on that date, but at the last minute changed his plan and went there Aug. 13 — after he faced strong domestic and international criticism.

Even so, that first visit still soured diplomatic ties with China and South Korea and drew domestic lawsuits. In court, the government insists that Koizumi has visited Yasukuni as a “private citizen.”

This year may be the last chance for Koizumi to fulfill his pledge to visit the shrine on Aug. 15.

This, his final term as LDP president, runs through September 2006. But a showdown House of Councilors vote on his postal privatization bills awaits him on Monday.

He has indicated he will dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election if the bills were rejected in the Upper House. With the LDP divided over the legislation, party leaders warn the LDP may not survive the election as the ruling force.

“We’re ready (to welcome him) whenever he may come,” said Shingo Oyama, who is in charge of public relations at Yasukuni Shrine.

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