NEW DELHI — No place of homage has generated more political heat between countries in recent years than the eye-catching Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. At the center of the storm has been a dark horse who became Japan’s prime minister more than five years ago and who leaves office next month, having fashioned an extraordinary legacy pivoted on a nationalist shift in policy.

Junichiro Koizumi has weathered a major diplomatic row with Beijing and Seoul over his Yasukuni visits, building in the process a jujitsu strategy for Japan to stand up to China.

A shrine seen by Beijing and Seoul as an emblem of Japan’s past militarism has become the symbol of major policy change under Koizumi. After having led the Liberal Democratic Party last September to one of its largest parliamentary majorities in modern Japanese history, Koizumi is voluntarily quitting, content to have laid the foundation for a more assertive Japan with greater strategic autonomy.

Koizumi has visited Yasukuni annually, but in a bid to tamp down Chinese fury, he earlier avoided going on the highly symbolic Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender — until now. In a parting shot, Koizumi has fulfilled his 2001 election campaign promise by paying homage there on the anniversary.

At a time when several parts of the world are in ferment, as illustrated by the increasing number of bodies arriving daily at Iraqi morgues, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the rise in international terrorist attacks, the Japanese leader’s pilgrimages to a shrine may sound hardly like a serious issue. Beijing and Tokyo, however, have turned Yasukuni into a big issue — China through its rage and invective, and Koizumi by making the shrine a symbol of Japan’s return as a “normal” state.

Koizumi’s defiant Yasukuni visits, in fact, have come to epitomize a backlash in Japan over China’s nationalism-mongering and blatant political use of the history card.

While China harps on Japan’s past, its own selective memory is evident from its school textbooks, which black out the Chinese invasion of Tibet (1950), the aggression against India (1962) and the attack on Vietnam (1979). Chinese textbooks conceal or make light of the post-1949 disasters that occurred under communist rule, such as the mass starvation and death during the so-called Great Leap Forward during the 1950s and the large-scale state atrocities during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s. Millions died or were persecuted during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, as Mao Zedong worship reached fever pitch.

Even today, Beijing employs purported history to lay claims in the East and South China Seas, show an entire Indian state (Arunchal Pradesh) as Chinese, and demand Taiwan’s “return.”

Yasukuni is a Shinto memorial to modern Japan’s 2.6 million war dead, including the 12 leading World War II figures like Prime Minister Hideki Tojo who were convicted of “crimes against peace” by the Allied powers’ tribunal and executed, and two others who died before they were convicted. The 14 were added to the honor rolls of the prewar shrine only in 1978. Beijing’s anti-Yasukuni tirade is even more recent, the result of the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to replace its increasingly ineffectual ideology with ultra-nationalism.

China’s political manipulation of historical grievances against Japan predates Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits. Even if Koizumi’s successor were to avoid the shrine, China is unlikely to stop hitting Japan over the head with the history card. In that situation, Beijing would still be able to exploit the Japanese textbooks issue and what it sees as insufficient Japanese penitence for past atrocities.

Beijing’s aim is not to extract more apologies from Tokyo for its 1931 occupation of Manchuria and 1937 invasion of Han China, but to continually shame and tame Japan. In fact, visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had wantonly used Indian soil in April 2005 to demand that Japan “face up to history squarely,” setting the stage for his country’s orchestrated anti-Japanese mob protests.

The larger Asian reality today is that revisionist history has become a political instrument not only for Japan but also for those who exploit the Yasukuni issue. Several Asian states continue to employ such history to instill among their citizens an abiding and overweening sense of grievance and victimization.

The recrudescence of fiery historical grievances underscores the need for China, Japan and South Korea to embrace a forward-looking approach that breaks free from history. India, for example, has not kept alive the colonial-era history of British atrocities and abuses. That is because India has not been led by post-independence, ultra-nationalistic politicians messianically determined to correct historical wrongs or reinterpret colonial history.

If China’s rulers had the capacity to take the long view and to think about the broader constellation of their national interests, they would not be inciting nationalism in Japan. In just one decade, Beijing has gone from commending Japan for being pacifist, China-friendly and a generous aid donor to chilling relations with Tokyo in such a way as to spur Japanese nationalism.

Koizumi, as part of his jujitsu strategy, has not only withstood Chinese pressure but also ingeniously used his Yasukuni policy to signal Japan’s political rise.

Furthermore, with an eye on the future, Koizumi has sought to raise Japan’s military profile by loosening constitutional constraints. He dispatched Japanese naval tankers to the Indian Ocean in support of the U.S. and British forces operating in Afghanistan. He also sent about 600 troops to southern Iraq on a noncombat humanitarian mission, and then announced recently that he is bringing them back home. He has introduced legislation to elevate the Japan Defense Agency to full ministry status.

Such actions have only underlined Japan’s determination to expand its strategic options and create a more autonomous defense structure. The defense posture of Japan, which has nearly 240,000 military personnel, is already undergoing a subtle change.

Although China’s dramatic rise has compelled Tokyo to reinvigorate its military ties with Washington under the framework of the 1960 Security Treaty, Japan looks as if it is headed in the medium to long run toward greater independence on security matters. One early signal of that has been Tokyo’s expressed intent to slash its generous host-nation financial support to U.S. forces stationed in Japan. That support makes up almost 8 percent of the $46.5-billion Japanese defense budget.

As Koizumi leaves office, he can draw satisfaction that he has built popular support for revision of the U.S.-imposed pacifist Japanese Constitution. Under him, Japan has shown the resolve not to kowtow to a China eager to supplant the United States as the main player in Asia.

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