Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in April inflamed Beijing, casting a chill on Japan-China relations. The row forced Koizumi to cancel a visit to Beijing he had planned for this fall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic relations. The two nations are no longer in a celebratory mood.

I went to the shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II. There I was astounded by noisy demonstrations being staged by pro-Yasukuni groups denouncing reported recommendations by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda’s advisory panel to create a new national war memorial that would serve as an alternative to Yasukuni.

Pro-Yasukuni forces claim the establishment of a new memorial would diminish the importance of Yasukuni as the spiritual center honoring the nation’s war dead. Makoto Koga, head of the Japan War-Bereaved Association and former LDP secretary general, said in a recent newspaper interview that he opposes the proposal for a new memorial.

I find it puzzling that in April Koizumi made his second visit as prime minister to the shrine without waiting for the advisory panel’s opinion. He also said he intended to visit Yasukuni even after an alternative facility was built.

Koizumi should have avoided visiting Yasukuni and expressing his views about a new memorial until the panel published its recommendations. His conduct was rude to panel members.

Also dismaying was that Koizumi rode with U.S. President George W. Bush to visit Meiji Shrine in February, but did not accompany him in paying respects at the inner shrine. Instead, Koizumi stayed in the car, fearing that he might appear to violate the constitutional principle of separation of state and religion.

Of all Japan’s shrines and temples, Meiji attracts the largest number of well-wishers during the New Year’s holidays. It transcends religion. No political trouble has been reported over a Cabinet minister’s visit to this shrine. Oddly, Koizumi did not appear concerned about the separation of state and religion during his controversial visits to Yasukuni.

On Aug. 15, I toured the shrine’s refurbished war museum. Among the exhibits were machine guns, cannons, torpedoes for suicide attacks, tanks and a Zero fighter — all used in the Pacific War. fighter. I was dismayed by paintings, photographs and other visual images that embellished Japan’s modern military history, including the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War and the “Greater East Asia War,” the wartime Japanese name for the Pacific War.

There were no exhibits expressing remorse for Japan as an aggressor in Asia or condolences to the victims of U.S. air raids and the two atomic bombs. I felt as if I had been exposed to a specter of Japanese militarism.

In a notebook for visitors’ comments, many high-school students praised Japan’s past militarism. A souvenir shop in the museum sold T-shirts emblazoned with the wartime slogan “We Shall Win” and other war-related goods. I came away doubting the museum’s intent.

The same day I observed a rally held by the national association of war-bereaved families for peace. An association leader asked those present to offer a moment of silent prayer, saying “Although Japan lost three million people in the war, we should not forget that 20 million foreign people were killed by the Japanese military.”

Pro-Yasukuni forces call such views self-denigrating, but if we are to avoid a repeat of war, we should reflect on past Japanese acts of aggression, instead of praising the “heroic deeds” of dead Japanese soldiers. That would be in line with the spirit of the pacifist Constitution.

The war-bereaved families for peace have filed suits against Koizumi, Tokyo’s nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Yasukuni Shrine, alleging that the prime minister’s and the governor’s visits to the shrine contravened the Constitution.

Pro-Yasukuni groups claim that China and South Korea are intervening in Japan’s domestic affairs by demanding that Koizumi stop visiting Yasukuni, but they should realize that many Japanese are also critical of his visits.

The prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni do not merely violate the constitutional principle of separation of state and religion; tolerating the enshrinement of convicted Class-A war criminals with the war dead is tantamount to overlooking responsibility for the Pacific War and negating the lessons that Japanese should have learned from the war. There should be stronger public criticism regarding the Yasukuni issue, which has caused tension in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

Meanwhile, in a shocking move, the Ehime Prefectural Board of Education has adopted a controversial history textbook, which has been criticized by China and South Korea, for use at new public junior high schools.

Like the pro-Yasukuni forces, the nationalistic textbook writers — members of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform — denounce the Allied-led international tribunal in Tokyo that convicted the Class-A war criminals, and try to justify Japan’s conduct in the war. It is inappropriate as a school textbook as it fails to objectively review Japan’s military past. Furthermore, the education board approved the textbook in a secret session.

To avoid further tension with China and South Korea, Koizumi should make a decision regarding the new war memorial by respecting the principle of separation of state and religion and taking care not to disrupt international harmony. By doing so, he will help the souls of the war dead rest in peace.

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