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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statement at his New Year news conference has added stress to Japan’s already strained relations with China and South Korea. He defiantly criticized the two neighboring countries for refusing summit talks with Japan because of his repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

When asked what he can do to improve Japan’s relations with both countries, Mr. Koizumi said that on the basis of strong relations between Japan and the United States he would like to push cooperative relations with China, South Korea and other Asian nations. Then Mr. Koizumi said, “I believe it is better not to turn Yasukuni into a diplomatic issue. . . . I cannot understand the stance that they will not hold diplomatic negotiations or summit talks because they have a different opinion over one issue. . . . I have never closed the door to negotiations with either China or South Korea. It is always open.” The shrine honors Japan’s 2.47 million war dead as well as 14 Class-A war criminals.

He went on to say: “The fact that they say they will not take part in negotiations because I have visited Yasukuni is tantamount to saying that the issue has ceased to be an item that should be diplomatically handled. . . . China and South Korea should not close the door to (summit) talks or to negotiations because of this single issue.”

Mr. Koizumi’s statement betrays his lack of understanding of, or his refusal to understand, the historical role that Yasukuni played. He reiterated that the purpose of his Yasukuni visits is to express gratitude and respect to the war dead and to pledge that Japan will never wage another war. He may be sincere in saying this, but Mr. Koizumi needs to realize that Yasukuni Shrine, as the main pillar of state Shinto, played an important role in promoting Japan’s militarism by serving as a spiritual and ideological vehicle for mobilizing people for Japan’s modern war in China and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

People in East Asia have not forgotten the damage, including the huge number of lives lost, that Japan’s aggression and colonial rule caused. They know what role Yasukuni Shrine played. To them, Yasukuni is the symbol of Japan’s aggression.

Mr. Koizumi said in his statement: “This is a matter of the heart of one politician. . . . This is a matter of freedom of spirit. . . . I don’t understand why opinion-makers and intellectuals, who hate political interference with freedom of the spirit and matters of the heart, criticize my Yasukuni visits. Even more, I don’t understand the stance of foreign governments that interfere in a matter of the heart and turn it into a diplomatic issue.”

If the heart is so important, logic dictates that he also pay attention to the hearts of other parties. Mr. Koizumi needs to understand a simple fact of life: A party that has suffered from another party’s action cannot forget the past suffering while the offending party continues to act as if it can forget it easily. His statement runs the risk of being considered callous toward neighboring countries’ memory of wartime experiences.

Diplomatically, Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits have not been wise. They have aggravated Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. His New Year statement should be regarded as another unwise gesture. The possibility cannot be ruled out that neighboring countries will further harden their attitude and raise the diplomatic stakes with Japan.

Given the deepening economic interdependence in East Asia, Japan must seek ways to exist and prosper together with other Asian nations. The nations in East Asia depended on intra-regional trade for 52.1 percent of their production activities in 2003, up from 33.6 percent in 1980. The past decade saw a fourfold increase in trade between Japan and China, an eightfold increase between China and South Korea, and a sixfold increase between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is logical that Japan make utmost efforts to smooth its relations with neighboring countries.

Mr. Koizumi suggested that the ball is now in the court of China and South Korea. “Japan is saying that it is ready to talk even if there is a difference in opinion over one or two issues,” he said. “The next step depends on the judgment the other parties make.” But the ball remains in Japan’s court. For it is clear that if Mr. Koizumi, as a public official, decided to stop visiting Yasukuni, it would help improve the situation, although it might not be necessarily a panacea.

Mr. Koizumi’s adherence to the Yasukuni visits to the point of obstinacy could spur parochial nationalism — a dangerous condition not only in Japan but also in other East Asian countries. If it does, Japan’s strategic efforts to promote an international environment conducive to its own peace and prosperity will run against obstacles in the future.

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