Special to The Japan Times CAMBRIDGE, England — A lot has been written about Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s third visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Much of it had a high emotional content. Now that the initial furor has died down we can step back and give it a bit more thought.
Many of the commentators on the visit explained it in terms of domestic politics. It is being seen as something that had to be done to appease the rightwing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to keep it on board ahead of the autumn elections. The logic assumed is that by getting the visit out of the way now, the negative reactions of everyone else will have died down by the time the election campaign gets under way. I don’t think so.
The LDP rightwingers will want the prime minister to go again in the autumn, to prove he is still one of them or at least that he is willing to do what ever they want to keep their support. Koizumi himself said the reason he went again was that he wanted, as an individual, to pray for peace. I don’t think so.
If he wants to pray for peace as an individual he can do this in the comfort of his own bedroom, on his knees. He does not have to make it a public act. The fact is he went as prime minister and made sure that the visit got maximum global publicity.
Koizumi knew that by visiting the shrine (where Class-A war criminals are memorialized along with Japan’s other war dead) he would upset and infuriate many people throughout Asia and beyond.
So why did he do it? And why is he promising to go again, every year, even though he knows its impact on Japan’s relations with its neighbors? I think I know why. It is not domestic politics. It is not piety. It is revenge.
After his first visit as prime minister to the shrine, he was shocked by the reaction in South Korea and in the People’s Republic of China to the visit. He wanted to visit them to assure them of his concern for their sensitivities. He also wanted to assure them that Japan regretted the harm that its armed forces and police had done to the citizens of Korea and China during World War II and before.
At first China refused to agree to a visit, and although South Korea received him the parliamentarians insulted him by refusing him entry to their chamber. In China he was eventually received, politely but coldly. He tried to interest South Korea and China and other Asian countries in joining with Japan in a free-trade area. But nobody wanted to play.
Then he went to the shrine again. Naturally there was a strong reaction from China and South Korea. Discussions on a bilateral free-trade area between Japan and South Korea were stalled.
The reaction in China was stronger. Koizumi was not invited to the celebrations in China to mark the 30th anniversary of normalization of relations between the two countries. President Jiang Zemin pointedly refused to answer the phone when Koizumi called to brief him on his historic visit to Pyongyang. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Mexico in the autumn Jiang, went out of his way to publicly humiliate Koizumi, wagging his finger at him and saying, in English for maximum effect, “no more shrine.” Not once, twice.
Koizumi lost a lot of face after his first visit to the shrine. His second visit was simply to show what he thought of the people who caused that loss of face. And the third was a “two fingers in your face” thing for Jiang, the Koreans being irrelevant in this equation.
If I am right, then the personal petulance of Koizumi has cost Japan dearly. By putting his personal pride above the national interest of Japan, he has lost the leadership of Asia for his country while he is in office and perhaps beyond.
The public and ostentatious contempt that Koizumi has shown for Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Cambodians and all those nations whose peoples suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the last century has turned attitudes in Asia against Japan. More than that, it has encouraged the re-emergence of extreme nationalism in its militaristic form.
Recently we have seen Japanese gun boats sink a North Korean vessel on the high seas and sail to support United States-led forces in wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which is supposed to outlaw such practices, has been effectively jettisoned. We have heard calls for Japan to develop nuclear weapons, and we have heard calls for the Japanese air force to carry out preemptive strikes against nuclear installations in North Korea.
What we have not heard is Koizumi taking any principled stand against any of this. What we are hearing instead is calls for Japan to become more assertive on security issues, for example in the recently published report, “New Era, New Vision.” This report was prepared for the prime minister by a task force led by Yukio Okamoto, an adviser on foreign relations to the Japanese Cabinet.
One form of the assertiveness being recommended in the report is represented in the call for Japan to turn its back on history and take a less conciliatory tone in its relations with China. The report recommends, for example, that Japan be bolder in its relations with Taiwan, regardless of the reaction of the Chinese. The task force also calls for a reduction in aid to China. Both of these policies have the support of Koizumi and are being carried out.
The report recognizes that Japan has to come to terms with the emergence of China as a regional economic power. It suggests that the way to do this is to encourage the development of a “borderless economic sphere” in East Asia, “the growth center of the world economy.” There is an assumption that Japan would be the leader in setting up this “economic sphere.” There is also an assumption that a free-trade arrangement with South Korea would be an important first step.
Koizumi’s visits to the shrines have made all of this unlikely. They have turned opinion in South Korea away from support for a free-trade area with Japan and toward support for a free-trade area with China. They have turned opinion in East Asia away from regional economic arrangements in which Japan is the leader and toward plans in which China in the leader.
Koizumi’s self-pride has cost Japan dearly; it has cost it the leadership of Asia. It has also demeaned Japan in the eyes of the world for keeping such a man as its prime minister.
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