Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday, his third since he took office in April 2001, has caused a predictable stir both here and abroad, particularly in China and South Korea. One wonders whether the prime minister had carefully weighed the pluses and minuses of paying homage at the Shinto shrine, a symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism.

Diplomatically, a Japanese prime minister has nothing to gain by visiting Yasukuni, where Class-A war criminals of World War II are enshrined along with Japan’s war dead. Previous visits by some of Mr. Koizumi’s predecessors, as well as by Mr. Koizumi himself, had invariably provoked strong criticism from both Beijing and Seoul. Once again they have reacted sharply.

On Wednesday, South Korea abruptly canceled a meeting between President Kim Dae Jung and Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. The official explanation was that President Kim’s schedule was tight, but there is little doubt that Seoul was trying to convey its displeasure over Mr. Koizumi’s trip to the shrine. China’s protest, meanwhile, has cast a shadow over his prospective trip to Beijing.

The prime minister must have anticipated the diplomatic fallout of his visit to Yasukuni, particularly at a time when Japan needs to work closely with South Korea and China in dealing with North Korea’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons. The fact that Mr. Koizumi went there nonetheless suggests that he is driven by some deep feeling about the shrine.

Whatever the reasons, his latest Yasukuni visit flies in the face of a proposal to build a nonreligious state-run monument for the war dead — a proposal made last December by a private advisory panel to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda. As the report put it, the nation needs a place where everyone can visit freely to pray for the souls of the war dead, regardless of his or her religious faith. The prime minister should explain more clearly why he has to go to Yasukuni.

It appears that Mr. Koizumi carefully timed his surprise visit to deflect head-on criticism here and abroad, as he did on the previous two occasions. The first visit, on Aug. 13, 2001, was made two days before the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, while the second visit took place in April 2002 during the shrine’s spring festival. The latest one came before the opening of a regular Diet session this month and before the start of a new administration in South Korea and China in February and March, respectively.

Following Tuesday’s visit, Mr. Koizumi told reporters that he had renewed his resolve that Japan “should never again wage war” and that in that spirit of peace he had paid his “deep respects and thanks” to the war dead. There is certainly nothing wrong with this statement, which reflects a natural feeling for the war victims. What matters is that Yasukuni is also dedicated to those convicted by an international war crimes tribunal. That is why an act of homage by a prime minister is seen by many as a telltale sign that Japan may be reverting to its militaristic past. Beyond that, an official visit to the shrine raises questions of constitutionality because it could violate the principle of separation of religion and politics.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda said Mr. Koizumi went to Yasukuni “as an individual” to express his personal feelings. This explanation is only half true, because Mr. Koizumi, wherever he goes, cannot escape the fact that he is also the prime minister of Japan. Mr. Fukuda also said this is “not a matter to make a fuss about.” He is wrong. It is Mr. Fukuda himself who set up an advisory panel to address the issue of a prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni.

The panel’s recommendation for creating a religiously neutral monument, if carried out, will settle the Yasukuni issue in two ways: first, by resolving the dilemma of praying for war dead who happen to be enshrined among war criminals, and second, by eliminating the possibility of crossing the “red line” between religion and politics. The final decision is left to the government.

Prime Minister Koizumi is in a position to bring his administration into line on this matter. The fact is that conservative groups in Japan — including the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japan Association for the Bereaved Families of the War Dead — are dead set against the proposal, saying it would “emasculate” Yasukuni Shrine. Mr. Koizumi, for his part, appears determined to visit the shrine once a year.

The Yasukuni controversy will continue unless and until the nation’s head of government stops paying homage at the shrine. And so, too, will the diplomatic consequences of it. This negative cycle must be broken once and for all. Otherwise it will remain an albatross around the neck of Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.

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