JAPAN DEFIES ITS CRITICS ; Wartime Wounds Re-Opened Junichiro Koizumi's Visit to a Controversial War Shrine Yesterday Provoked Anger across Asia
McNeill, David, The Independent (London, England)
Television viewers around the world who earlier this summer watched open-mouthed as Japan's Prime Minister donned sunglasses and memorably impersonated his hero, Elvis Presley, saw a very different public persona yesterday: a steely, grim-faced Junichiro Koizumi entering the funereal shadows of Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine.
The visit, just weeks before Japan's most controversial premier steps down from power, once again demonstrated Mr Koizumi's Janus- faced nature: a conservative whose mantra is "reform without limits"' a man who talks endlessly about the future but who sometimes seems held in thrall to the past.
The visit also demonstrated his skills as a master of the media theatre, but yesterday's piece of political kabuki could cost Japan dearly. The pilgrimage to the most contentious piece of real estate in Asia ends Mr Koizumi's five-year premiership on a bitterly divisive note and worsens
ties with China and South Korea, which both reacted furiously.
Across Asia, Yasukuni symbolises Japan's undigested history and its lack of contrition for an imperialist war that killed mil-lions of Chinese, Korean and other civilians. Ironically meaning "peaceful nation", the 10km2 plot of hallowed ground was directly run by the military during the Second World War. Millions were trained to fight to the death and told that the highest honour for a soldier was enshrinement there as a kami, or god. "See you at Yasukuni" became a famous wartime slogan.
The US postwar occupation divested the shrine from the state and put it under the management of aprivate religious organisation. But with the names of 2.5 million dead listed in its Book of Souls, Yasukuni remained a potent symbol for nationalists even before the secret decision in 1959 by the Shinto priests to begin enshrining Class B and C war criminals, convicted by an Allied military tribunal. In 1978, the priests listed the 14 men who had led the war, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, among the shrine's list of official deities. At a stroke, they removed one of the central planks of Japan's post-1945 settlement with Asia: the separation of the wartime leadership from the rest of the "brainwashed" population. Politicians who went to the shrine would now be implicitly honouring the wartime leadership - and by extension, the war - along with ordinary soldiers.
When the enshrinement was leaked to the press in 1979, it caused uproar in China and Korea and even upset Emperor Hirohito, who thereafter refused to visit Yasukuni. Several leaders made pilgrimages after 1979, some in secret, but Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's decision to go on 15 August 1985, the 40th anniversary of Japan's surrender, sparked such a furious reaction abroad that no Japanese leader dared visit on that date again - until yesterday.
Later, at a ceremony to mark the end of the war, Mr Koizumi apologised to Japan's war victims, saying: "Our country caused huge damage and suffering to a number of countries."
The apology, first issued more than a decade ago by the socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama amid intense opposition, has since become Tokyo's boilerplate response to claims it has not properly atoned for the war.
Nationalists have waited since 2001 for the prime minister to fulfill a pledge to visit Yasukuni on 15 August, which Japan calls "end of the war day". Critics say the semantic sleight of hand allows Japan to avoid using the more contentious terms "surrender" or "defeat" and implies that the war was a natural disaster that befell the country, like an earthquake or a typhoon.
"Japanese pacifism is based on victimisation so we can't use any words that suggest we were actively involved," said Koichi Nakano, professor of comparative politics at Tokyo's Sophia University. "Japan never talks about people killing and doing awful things. This visit takes this process a step forward because it contributes to the blurring of war responsibility even further. …