His landslide victory in the Sept. 11 snap elections and the Diet passage on Oct. 14 of the postal services privatization bills apparently have emboldened Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He made his fifth visit to the Yasukuni Shrine since he came to power in 2001 on Monday, which marked the start of the shrine’s autumnal festival.

Unlike his earlier visits, he did not enter the hall of worship nor autographed his name or title in a visitors’ book. Ostensibly to weaken the political impact of his visit, he threw money into an offertory and joined his hands together in prayer before the hall as ordinary visitors do. In whatever form, however, his visit to the shrine, which enshrines Japan’s 2.46 million war dead and 14 Class A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, calls into question his thinking as the nation’s leader, not only concerning Japan’s relations with neighboring countries and how to view Japan’s war past but also concerning the constitutional principle of separation of religion and state.

China and South Korea have asked time and again that Mr. Koizumi refrain from visiting Yasukuni, which served as a spiritual vehicle to mobilize the Japanese for war in the 1930s and ’40s in China and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Mr. Koizumi appears to have chosen to satisfy his emotional attachment to the shrine and to have discarded efforts to rectify Japan’s already-soured relations with its neighbors. His Yasukuni visit will also pour cold water on the six-nation talks to solve the issues of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents because the talks’ success hinges on cooperation with China and South Korea.

Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wang Yi issued a statement that said China firmly opposes Mr. Koizumi’s visits to the shrine in any form. To respond to anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese people touched off by Mr. Koizumi’s latest Yasukuni visit, China may take retaliatory steps in the economic and cultural fields in addition to the political field, where relations are already chilly. The latest visit took place at a time when the Chinese leadership was seeking ways in which to improve Sino-Japanese ties. Now China has canceled a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers that is scheduled to take place later this month.

South Korea’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Ban Ki Moon also expressed a strong regret over Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit. In a June summit, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyon told Mr. Koizumi that the Yasukuni issue lies at the “core” of the historical-perception issues that exist between the two countries. Mr. Roh may cancel his planned visit to Japan in December, leading to further deterioration in bilateral relations.

Mr. Koizumi’s latest Yasukuni visit stands to damage Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors all the more because it came after he issued a statement apologizing for Japan’s past colonialism and aggression on Aug. 15, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. In line with a statement issued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Aug. 15, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Mr. Koizumi’s statement said in part, “In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.” It also said, “I believe it is necessary to work hand in hand with other Asian countries, especially with China and the Republic of Korea, which are Japan’s neighboring countries, separated only by a strip of water, to maintain peace and pursue the development of the region.”

In view of the role the Yasukuni Shrine played in Japan’s modern-day wars, Japan’s neighbors will think that Mr. Koizumi betrayed the spirit expressed in the statement by visiting the shrine again and that he does not understand what Japan’s wars meant to peoples of other Asian countries. After his Monday visit, Mr. Koizumi said that he prayed at the shrine with a resolve to wage no more war and that he would attach importance to Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors and make future-oriented efforts. But his statement must be incomprehensible to many people both in and outside Japan.

So far, seven district courts and four high courts made rulings on Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits. The Fukuoka District Court and the Osaka High Court have decided that they violated the principle of separation of religion and state stipulated in Article 20 of the Constitution, while the others chose to skirt the constitutional question. As a national leader, Mr. Koizumi must respect this constitutional principle. His repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine should be taken as a failure to understand the importance of the principle as a pillar of constitutional democracy.

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