Revenge of the Doves; Pacifists Stake out Their Ground in the Race to Take over as Prime Minister from Junichiro Koizumi

Newsweek International, February 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

Revenge of the Doves; Pacifists Stake out Their Ground in the Race to Take over as Prime Minister from Junichiro Koizumi


Byline: Christian Caryl

In a conference room across the street from the imposing Diet building, a Tokyo history professor in a black sweater is holding forth on the role of war memorials. Listening to him is a respectful audience of several dozen politicians, who occasionally interrupt with polite questions. Among them are leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party--men with graying temples and stern black suits. It's not exactly the stuff of headlines--until you consider that the LDP elders at the meeting, including former vice president Taku Yamasaki and former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda, might be called foreign-policy rebels, plotting an insurrection against a man whose name is never mentioned in their deliberations: Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

According to LDP rules, Koizumi must step down from his party leadership post in the fall of this year--and in doing so relinquish his position as prime minister. And so the race to succeed him is on. The front runner is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 51, who boasts excellent name recognition and, as an outspoken nationalist, has plenty of street credibility. But the LDP notables in the conference room think they've found a political weapon with which to turn the leadership struggle to their advantage: Yasukuni Shrine. They're betting that a majority of LDP members are worried that good relations between Japan and its major Asian trading partners (China and South Korea) are more important than making ceremonial visits to a shrine that's deeply controversial among Japanese voters.

Since he became prime minister five years ago, Koizumi has made an annual visit to Yasukuni, the Shinto war memorial in downtown Tokyo that memorializes the souls of 2.47 million Japanese war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals executed by the victorious Allied powers after World War II. Koizumi's visits are galling to China and South Korea (both occupied by Japan during the war), and as a result, relations between those powerful neighbors and Japan have deteriorated in recent years. But far from feeling pressured by the other countries' yearly bouts of indignation, Koizumi has embraced them, deftly transforming the "Yasukuni problem" into a patriotic litmus test. "Those who criticize the visits should... clearly state whether the visits themselves are not right," Koizumi said recently, "or whether the visits are not right because China and South Korea say they are not right."

Now Koizumi and Abe's dovish rivals --are pushing back, very subtly. During a recent trip to Vietnam, Yamasaki deftly positioned himself as a Yasukuni opponent, saying: "Relations with Asian nations are at an impasse [because of Yasukuni]. This will be a very important issue in the next administration." Public opinion is divided; according to a Jan. 20 poll by the daily Mainichi Shimbun, 47 percent of those people surveyed oppose the visits, and an equal percentage favor them.

Yasuo Fukuda, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanikagi are all possible contenders for Koizumi's job. Fukuda is emerging as a pole of the anti-Yasukuni opposition. Yet another hereditary politician with impeccable LDP credentials (his father, Takeo, was prime minister in the 1970s), he's the second most popular candidate within the LDP. He hasn't said that he's campaigning for party president, but he's pretty open about opposing Yasukuni visits, which he's said have "hindered the development of Japan-China relations. …

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