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Should he continue his custom of making annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could seriously harm Japan’s national interest. His persistence in visiting the Tokyo memorial to the nation’s war dead has intensified the firestorm of anti-Japanese criticism in China and South Korea, undermining the Japanese position in Asian diplomacy.

Recent opinion polls showed opposition to Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits exceeding support for the first time. There is growing public anxiety over Koizumi’s sense of diplomacy. A prime minister’s most important task is to promote national interest, regardless of his or her own personal beliefs.

To solve the issue once and for all, Koizumi should stop paying his respects at the shrine and make a political decision to establish a nonreligious national facility to mourn the war dead.

Koizumi has been making annual visits to the shrine since he took office in 2001. Answering questions before the Diet last month, Koizumi brushed aside Chinese criticism of the custom, saying foreign countries should not interfere in the way Japan mourns its war dead.

The Yasukuni issue has flared again since recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China subsided. China’s Vice Premier Wu Yi, while visiting Japan last month, abruptly canceled a meeting with Koizumi — one that she had requested — over the issue and flew home. Her diplomatic discourtesy was outrageous, but Koizumi’s annual Yasukuni visits give China a “diplomatic card” it can play anytime.

Koizumi has criticized “foreign interference” in Japan’s domestic affairs, but the Yasukuni issue is not entirely a domestic problem. Under Article 11 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan accepted the sentences handed down by the Far East Military Tribunal (the Tokyo trials) held by the allied powers. Of the 28 defendants tried on charges with class-A war crimes, former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six others were sentenced to death and 16 to life imprisonment.

Some experts at home and abroad have contended that the Tokyo trials — in which victors in the war meted out unilateral justice on losers — were legally untenable. Yet Koizumi himself told the Diet that Japan was in no position to dispute the legality of the Tokyo trials since it had accepted them under the peace treaty, adding that he recognized those convicted in the trials as war criminals.

If that’s so, Koizumi should not pay his respects at Yasukuni, which honors class-A war criminals along with the other war dead. Koizumi, while publicly recognizing the war crimes of military leaders, insists that his visits to the shrine are based on personal beliefs “not on a prime minister’s duty.” Does he attach more importance to his personal beliefs than to his international responsibility for settling war problems?

Eight former prime ministers recently met or exchanged views over the telephone with Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono, known for his dovish stance, and agreed that Koizumi should stop visiting the shrine amid growing concern that the issue is aggravating Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who visited the shrine in 1985 but then refrained from doing so again in the face of strong protests from China, advised Koizumi to stop visiting Yasukuni and consider national interest.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner New Komeito, warned that if Koizumi were to visit Yasukuni this year, the foundation of the coalition could be undermined.

Some LDP officials, like Shinzo Abe, acting secretary general and a potential contender for the prime minister’s job, argues that not only Koizumi but also his successors should continue visiting the shrine. However, growing insecurities in the LDP over Koizumi’s diplomatic stance indicate that Asian diplomacy could become a source of controversy for the post-Koizumi administration.

Public opinion on the Yasukuni issue is changing. A Kyodo News poll conducted last December, after Chinese President Hu Jintao asked Koizumi in a meeting in Chile to stop visiting Yasukuni, showed those in support of the visits exceeding those opposed by 51-40 percent. A similar poll conducted last month, however, had support lagging the opposition — 34-57 percent.

The survey results show a deepening sense of crisis among the public amid a deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations over historical perceptions.

Koizumi, addressing the Afro-Asian conference in Jakarta in April to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the so-called Bandung Conference, expressed “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology” to Asian nations that suffered during Japan’s colonization and wartime aggression. The speech directly quoted from a government statement that Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama is had used in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.

Koizumi must match his words with action before the international community will accept them.

In 2001, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda created a private advisory panel to solve the Yasukuni dispute following Koizumi’s first visit. The panel proposed in a 2002 report that a nonreligious national facility for mourning the war dead be established, but the government has failed to act on the proposal. Yet the only way to settle the Yasukuni deadlock is to implement the proposal.

Amid growing moves to establish an Asian Community this century, Japan should promote strategic diplomacy with an emphasis on Asia as well as the Japan-U.S. alliance. Japan faces important challenges involving national interest that have little to do with personal beliefs. The prime minister’s responsibility is to avoid misleading the nation.

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