Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the 61st anniversary of the end of World War II, points to his failure to understand that such visits have a historical dimension that overshadows Japan’s relations with neighboring countries.
A prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni, which honors 12 convicted Class-A war criminals and two suspects, as well as Japan’s 2.46 million war dead, cannot simply be “a matter of the heart” — an expression Mr. Koizumi often uses to explain his actions. Not only do the visits further strain Japan’s already chilled relations with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, but they lead other people of Asia, and much of the international community, to suspect that Japan has not fully denounced the mistakes of militarism during the 1930s and ’40s. This perception can cause serious harm to Japan’s international standing.
For five previous visits, Mr. Koizumi had avoided Aug. 15. This time, he finally fulfilled his pledge made during the 2001 Liberal Democratic Party presidential election campaign to visit the shrine on the war-end anniversary. The damage this has done is great. This is the first Yasukuni visit by a prime minister on Aug. 15 since Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s visit in 1985. Mr. Nakasone, however, refrained from visiting Yasukuni again during his remaining term following strong protests from China and South Korea. Mr. Koizumi’s stubbornness, on the other hand, has exposed his failure to grasp what his behavior signifies in a larger, historical context.
By repeating the visits to Yasukuni and making his last one on Aug. 15, Mr. Koizumi has placed priority on his cherished sense of ensuring that his behavior matches his words, rather than on the need to nurture a harmonious regional environment. Shortly after his latest Yasukuni visit, Mr. Koizumi explained that its purpose was not to pray for the souls of the Class-A war criminals but to mourn the deaths of the many soldiers who experienced hardship during the war years and might not have wanted to go to war at all. “I make the visit, believing that such a war that tormented them should not be repeated,” he said.
He also said he did not go to Yasukuni to promote Shintoism, glorify Japan’s past wars or extol Japan’s militarism. In what appeared to be an irrelevant citing of Article 19 and 20 of the Constitution — which, to protect citizens against the abuse of state power, guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and sets down the principle of the separation of religion and state — he insisted that his Yasukuni visit was a “matter of the heart.” But such a statement attests to an apparent lack of knowledge about the historic role of Yasukuni Shrine, or a deliberate effort to ignore it.
Yasukuni served as a spiritual apparatus to mobilize Japanese toward the goals of war. The shrine, which memorializes those who died in action, was at the apex of social devices, including newspaper listings of soldiers’ names, memorial services and funerals, telegrams from the army minister and the Kinshi Kunsho (Order of the Golden Kite) awards — all of which were aimed at instilling a sense of respect and honor toward soldiers and their families and to suppress sorrow and possible resentment over the personal sacrifices made.
Yasukuni’s traditional purpose was to praise and glorify the act of dying in action for the emperor — not to console the souls of such soldiers. In this sense, Yasukuni was a symbol of Japan’s militarism. Beijing and Seoul may have exploited Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits for political purposes, but despite his personal statement, Mr. Koizumi’s actions lead others to question the basic inclinations of Japan.
Mr. Koizumi did not talk about those who suffered at the hands of Japan’s militarism, but rather the hardship Japanese soldiers experienced. He mentioned the feelings of his heart, but not the hearts of those who were victims of Japan’s war of aggression, or the relatives that still suffer. In this respect, Mr. Koizumi could be seen as callous.
On the day he visited Yasukuni, he also visited the Chidorigafuchi cemetery of unknown soldiers and attended an annual war-end ceremony at the Nihon Budokan hall. In his speech at the ceremony, Mr. Koizumi acknowledged that Japan had inflicted immense damage and pain on people in other Asian countries and he mourned for them “with deep reflection.” Yet his Yasukuni visit earlier in the day is incongruous with that speech.
Overcoming the negative legacy left by Mr. Koizumi’s repeated Yasukuni visits will become an important task for the next prime minister. The next leader must refrain from behavior that tends to fan nationalist sentiments among the Japanese, and instead pursue friendly relations with neighboring countries with humility and perseverance.
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