CAMBRIDGE, England — The ink was barely dry on my April 21 Japan Times article “Koizumi trade pitch misses,” which stated Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was thinking of going to pray at Yasukuni Shrine, when the news came that he had gone. We were told that he had felt the need “to mourn those who gave their lives to the country during the course of (Japan’s) history since the (1868) Meiji Restoration” and to “pray for those who lost their lives.”

The chief Cabinet secretary was careful to explain that it was a personal visit made on the basis of the prime minister’s personal faith. The prime minister’s claim that his motive for the visit to the shrine was personal raises questions.

First, if the motive was purely personal and the result of a need to mourn and pray, why could he not have done this in the privacy of his own home? Second, if he needs an institutional setting for his praying, why did he not go to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Third, if it was a personal and private gesture, why did he arrange extensive publicity and sign the visitors’ book as “prime minister?”

The simplistic explanations made in terms of private and personal motives are not credible. He knew what the reaction would be to his very public act of worship at Yasukuni, which has enshrined Class A war criminals. His visit to the shrine last August raised outrage in Asian countries where these criminals had carried out atrocities during the years of Japanese occupation, especially in China and North and South Korea, where the occupation lasted longest and was most brutal.

In response to the reaction elicited by last August’s shrine visit, the prime minister requested permission to visit South Korea and China to apologize. He was not welcome by many people in those countries. South Korea’s National Parliament refused him entry, and 10 veterans cut off parts of their fingers in protest at his actions. Whatever good that visit did in rebuilding diplomatic links has now been thrown away, and Koizumi has justifiably been branded a hypocrite.

He must have known his second visit to Yasukuni would produce a strong reaction in the very countries he has been so assiduously cultivating stronger ties with over the past year. I have been monitoring Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean newspapers and Web sites and press releases from Pyongyang. While the official reaction has been strong but muted, popular reaction has been extreme; the chat rooms are full of hate. In Seoul, a group of veterans publicly stabbed to death a pig that served as an effigy of Koizumi.

So what was the real reason for Koizumi’s visit? The political explanation offered is inadequate. We are told that as part of the package he agreed to in order to gain support for his appointment to the premiership, he was to visit Yasukuni on the anniversary of the war’s ending.

We are told his decision to go a couple of days early last August was regarded as breaking his promise, so he has gone again. Nonetheless, the more nationalistic of his supporters still do not consider him to have kept his promise.

As an excuse for the earlier timing of his visit this year, it has been suggested that he thought, or was advised, that China and South Korea would be muted in their reaction because they would not risk upsetting soccer supporters in their own countries by threatening the success of the World Cup. This is both sad and pointless and begs the further question of why Koizumi was asked to make the promise in the first place and why he feels he has to keep it, in spirit if not to the letter. Politicians’ promises are not expected to be kept, after all.

So why did he knowingly insult and upset the peoples of North and South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia and other countries whose soldiers and citizens had suffered in World War II camps? I can only come up with one explanation: fear.

Japan is dependent on the United States for security. Politically it is also a dependency; it has no real independent foreign policy. National pride has been satisfied for the past three decades through economic success. But now such pride is dissipating as the country’s economy slips into decline.

Japan has a palpable fear that it is on its way to becoming an economic dependency of China. It feels that the ascendancy of China, economically as well as politically and militarily, threatens what it sees as its rightful leadership position in East Asia. The leadership it feels it has bought with cash is slipping away.

A nation that thinks it is in decline can be a desperate place. Its politicians can get led by the nose by nationalists who can distract attention from the domestic corruption and moral decay that economic decline exposes. They even begin to eulogize the men who made their neighbors into enemies. Frightening, isn’t it? But I cannot think of a better explanation. Can you?

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