I was stunned by news reports that Junichiro Koizumi recently made his third visit as prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine. After his two previous visits drew strong protests from China and South Korea, and after he struggled to justify the visits, officials in both countries must be amazed and angered.

Former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ryutaro Hashimoto each paid homage at the shrine once while in office, but neither made further visits following protests from China and South Korea. Koizumi may assume that the two countries will throw up their hands and accept the visits to the shrine, regarded by some as a symbol of Japanese militarism, if he repeats them enough.

The Japanese press has also criticized the Yasukuni visits. Only two of Japan’s six national dailies with circulations of more than 2 million support Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits. The four others disapprove of Koizumi’s behavior on the grounds that Class-A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni along with other military war dead, and that the visits are incompatible with the separation of politics and religion under the Constitution.

Why does Koizumi insist on paying respects at the shrine, disregarding media criticism? First, in my opinion, since his power base in the governing Liberal Democratic Party is considered fragile, he is wooing the conservative forces in his bid for re-election as LDP president this fall. Second, he is trying to promote nationalism, which has been growing in Japan since the 1999 enactment of the national flag and anthem law.

The government is hoping for enactment in the current Diet session of military emergency legislation presented to the Diet in 2002 but carried over to the present session after strong resistance. The legislation, aimed at facilitating the mobilization of the Self-Defense Forces in an emergency, could help preserve the status of Yasukuni as a monument for future war dead.

Since 2001, a number of lawsuits challenging the unconstitutionality of Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits have been filed with district courts in Tokyo, Chiba, Osaka, Matsuyama, Fukuoka and Naha. This is highly unusual in Japan, where people are generally loath to go to court. Koizumi should listen to these voices.

Plaintiffs in Matsuyama include a Christian missionary, a Buddhist monk and Buddhist-affiliated religious organizations. In their view, the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni are unacceptable because they give privileged status to a Shinto shrine when all religions should be treated equally.

I don’t understand the weak-kneed position of New Komeito, a member of the ruling coalition that should especially be sensitive to religious issues. The party is backed by Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist-affiliated religious organization that was persecuted during World War II for resisting Japan’s imposition of Shintoism as a national religion. Some of the organization’s leaders died in prison.

New Komeito should stake its reputation on blocking Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits. Party leader Takenori Kanzaki “regrets” that Koizumi does not heed Komeito’s advice that he not visit the shrine because doing so endangers the constitutional principle of separation between politics and religion and because it creates diplomatic problems. Koizumi has ignored this opinion three times. Thus it is incomprehensible that New Komeito has not taken stronger action other than expressing regrets. The issue affects New Komeito’s ideology, so it should be ready to leave the ruling coalition if Koizumi continues to ignore its protests.

A private advisory body to the chief Cabinet secretary on establishing a substitute facility for Yasukuni said in a recent report that a nonreligious state-run monument for the war dead was necessary, but offered no views about its name or other details. The report, while generally vague, said a new national monument should demonstrate Japan’s “remembrance and hope” to the international community with which coexistence is essential. By repeating his visits to Yasukuni fully aware that they inflame China and South Korea, Koizumi contravenes this principle.

The proposed monument should make it unnecessary for Koizumi to visit Yasukuni. Koizumi argues, though, that Yasukuni and the monument would be separate and insists on making more visits to Yasukuni. At this rate, he will never allay concerns in China and South Korea, so it would be a waste of tax money to build Yasukuni’s substitute facility.

Yasukuni is a religious anachronism. Copies of a modern-Japanese version of the Imperial Rescript on Education — which was nullified by the Diet in 1948 — are distributed on the premises. A war museum at the shrine shows images of Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. “Yasukuni,” a publication of the shrine, carries articles criticizing popular historical perceptions of the Tokyo military tribunal for Japanese war-crime suspects. The publication is full of praise for prewar Japan, which trampled on other Asian countries. I doubt that the souls of the 2.46 million Japanese war dead enshrined at Yasukuni would want that.

Yasukuni authorities should make sure that the shrine is never again exploited for political purposes, and the government should promote international cooperation and peace diplomacy so that there are no more Japanese war dead. That is the only way to put to rest the souls of the war dead.

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