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Recent events in the nation’s normally staid print media have surprised readers of the powerful Yomiuri Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun.

The world’s two largest newspapers in terms of circulation are typically on separate sides of the fence: the Yomiuri leans to the political right, while the Asahi sits on the left.

In recent months, however, the two rivals have come down on the same side on the Yasukuni Shrine issue.

Since June, Tsuneo Watanabe, Yomiuri chairman and editor in chief, has spoken publicly about his dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Tokyo’s war-linked shrine and his belief that Japan must finally accept responsibility for the war.

His position has led him to forge an unlikely alliance with Yoshibumi Wakamiya, chairman of the editorial board at rival Asahi.

In a February interview in the Asahi’s Ronza news magazine, the two veteran journalists agreed that a secular war memorial should be built so the nation’s leaders would stop paying contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the nation’s war dead, as well as Class-A war criminals, whose names were quietly added to the list in 1978, and revealed by the media in 1979.

Yasukuni visits by Japan’s leaders are routinely condemned by Beijing and Seoul.

Professor Richard J. Samuels, director of the MIT Center for International Studies, an expert on Japanese defense policy and foreign affairs, said there is currently a fracturing of the right in Japan.

“I was struck not only by how closely aligned their views on Yasukuni/Yushukan (the museum at Yasukuni) were, but also by what I see as an emerging split on the Japanese right,” Samuels said. “The Sankei (Shimbun) neo-conservatives who see no problem with the Yasukuni visits or the shrine itself, (are) now openly confronted by the Yomiuri realists who see nothing but trouble for Japanese national interests if the Yasukuni issue is allowed to continue to fester.”

Watanabe gave a speech March 24 at the Foreign Correspondents Club, ostensibly to talk about his position on Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits.

However, he began by speaking at length about the candidates to replace Koizumi as Liberal Democratic Party president in September, when Koizumi plans to step down. The new LDP leader, like Koizumi, would be assured the prime ministership and will be faced with the question of whether to visit the Shinto shrine.

Watanabe reckoned the choice of LDP president ultimately will come down to either Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe or his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda — both of whom he said he was willing to support “emotionally.”

However, he appeared to back Fukuda, saying he could win “if there is a general consensus within the LDP . . . that they want someone 69 instead of 51.”

In 2002, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda announced that an advisory panel to his office had recommended a secular memorial be built. However, he became equivocal after Koizumi visited Yasukuni in January 2004, saying, “I think (a secular memorial) should be established when the public’s understanding for such a facility grows.”

Fukuda has yet to say if he will seek the LDP presidency.

As to helping Japan move past its legacy of wartime atrocities, Watanabe said it is stupid for nationalists to blindly honor all Japanese involved in the war, regardless of their guilt.

He said the solution was for the government to conduct its own investigation into where fault lay for the country’s involvement in the war, an idea that has the backing of the Asahi’s Wakamiya.

In the absence of a government probe, the Yomiuri chief said the only alternative was for the media to do it.

He suggested as a starting point 1929, when Japan ratified the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as an instrument of international diplomacy.

The people Watanabe said should be scrutinized include Kanji Ishiwara, who led the plotters of the Manchurian Incident of 1931, Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo for launching a war with the Allies he knew the nation could not win, the Imperial navy brass responsible for establishing the system of “tokkotai” suicide pilots that gained infamy as kamikaze, and Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki for publicly stating he would not recognize the Potsdam Declaration, paving the way for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Watanabe said the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal convened by the Allies in 1945 was victor’s justice and more about expediency than a true accounting of guilt, and this, he said, has left a legacy of doubt among Japanese as to who is at fault.

Wakamiya, in an appearance at the FCCJ on March 14, focused on the contradictions of Japan’s attempts to reconcile with its neighbors while upholding its traditions.

He noted the “following-year law” trend, in which apologies over Japan’s wartime aggression by the government or Emperor have been followed by nationalist lawmakers enacting laws preserving Japanese traditions, including the 1979 Era Name Law continuing the use of the old dating system, or calling for the prime minister to visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Koizumi tried, but failed, to balance these contradictory moves, Wakamiya figured.

“Koizumi wanted to be the best prime minister ever,” he said. “But when we consider the result of his plans, in a word, he failed. If he had studied history better and done more groundwork, there was a possibility it could have worked.”

Neither Wakamiya nor Watanabe have made any concrete suggestions on how to go about creating an alternative war memorial to Yasukuni, and they remain at odds on other issues.

However, both have expressed hope that the next prime minister will find a new approach to the problem.

With the two powerful media chiefs supporting a secular memorial and a probe into wartime responsibility, the next prime minister may have the momentum to take up those ideas.

But in his FCCJ speech, Wakamiya warned: “The nationalists worry that if an alternative is built, then no prime minister can return to Yasukuni. And though small in number, they make up much of the roots of the LDP.”