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The Politics of Yasukuni – To go or not to go?

Updated On: Aug 11, 2006

At the center of Sino-Japanese relations, and also to a smaller extent, Japan-South Korea relations are two questions: will outgoing PM Koizumi visit the Yasukuni Shrine and will his successor continue this tradition?

Right now, it seems that the answer to the first question is almost an affirmative, while the response to the second question is leaning towards the same direction too as Shinzo Abe is touted the frontrunner in the race to succeed Koizumi.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said an earlier pledge to visit Yasukuni on August 15 still holds. According to the Japan Times, Koizumi told reporters: "Yes, the election promise is still valid", referring to the pledge he made during his campaign for ruling Liberal Democratic Party's top post in 2001.

Abe is keeping his position fuzzy. "I will refrain from saying whether I went in the past or whether I will go (on August 15) at this point, now that the issue has come to have political and diplomatic implications," Abe told reporters. Abe also seems to suggest that if he becomes Prime Minister, his government would not interfere with Yasukuni activities. "The government is not in a position to state opinions on Yasukuni Shrine's religious positions and rites," Abe said.

The opposition to the Yasukuni visits is probably at its peak now. Public support for Koizumi's visits has dropped since documents were made public showing that Emperor Hirohito stopped going to Yasukuni because it honoured war criminals. His son, Emperor Akihito, has never gone since assuming the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989. At the same time, never had so many powerful personalities all spoken out at the same time. In addition, many have submitted proposals of their own.

Perhaps, the surprise of the day is the famously-hawkish Foreign Minister Taro Aso’s opposition to Yasukuni visits. He urged the controversial war-linked Shinto shrine to voluntarily disband as a religious entity and become a national secular memorial. According to Asahi Shimbun, Aso has also indicated that he will not pay respects at Yasukuni until the shrine takes up the burden of change. Hidenao Nakagawa, LDP policy chief, also backed up Aso.

Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki has also said he will not visit the shrine and endorses the idea of separating the 14 Class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni from the war dead. Yamasaki Taku believes a better solution is to build a separate, secular war memorial. In fact, according to Asahi Shimbun, in the 1960s and 1970s the LDP drafted a bill to put Yasukuni Shrine under state control, and submitted it to the Diet five times. But it never passed, and was eventually scrapped in June 1974.

Specifically, visits to Yasukuni on the 15th August are equally opposed. Even within Koizumi’s cabinet, nine out of 17 (4 were unavailable for comments) have made clear that they have no plans to visit war shrine on August 15, the 61st anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II. Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga who may run in the race to succeed Koizumi as a last minute Blackhorse candidate has said publicly that he would not visit the shrine. Education minister Kenji Kosaka was probably one of the most vocal and said he would not visit the shrine because, "when it comes to a public figure paying respects at the shrine in an official capacity, we must consider the reactions from other nations."

All these proposals run against the powerful priests at Yasukuni. According to the Japan Times, the priests at Yasukuni maintain that Japan's acts of war were carried out for self-defense, and that the postwar international military tribunal that named and condemned the Class-A war criminals was invalid in terms of international law.

Meanwhile, as a last-ditch effort to stop the August 15 visit, both China and South Korea have made calm representations. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon in his recent visit to Tokyo told Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso: "It is not normal to fail to arrange a summit between South Korea and Japan". "In order to normalise relations, we need to remove this obstacle. We don't have time to waste," Ban said, in reference to the shrine row.

China was more forthright. "We want top Japanese officials to call an immediate halt to visits to Yasukuni, where Class A war criminals are enshrined," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters during a visit to Tokyo. "Dealing with the history problem based on a correct view of history will be to the benefit of both the Japanese and Chinese peoples," he added.

Sources:

Can old twist on old plot defuse Yasukuni? (Asahi, 9 August 2006)

Koizumi to offer grant in Mongolia (Japan Times, 9 August 2006)

Nukaga looks to run, 'futile battle' or not (Japan Times, 9 August 2006)

Two ministers to go to Yasukuni (Japan Times, 9 August 2006)

Aso wants Yasukuni as nonreligious war memorial (Japan Times, 9 August 2006)

Japan PM hints at shrine visit on emotional date (Channelnewsasia , 9 August 2006)

Yasukuni visits on Aug. 15 not in cards for 9 in Cabinet (Asahi, 8 August 2006)

Japan boosts defence force on fears of North Korean attack (Channelnewsasia, 8 August 2006)

Japanese FM wants secular, state-run war shrine (Channelnewsasia, 8 August 2006)

Japan media focus blurred on big issues (Japan Times, 8 August 2006)

Avoid Yasukuni legacy: former aide (Japan Times, 8 August 2006)

4 key questions for Japan's next leader (Straits Times, 8 August 2006)

'I'm ready to visit shrine at any time' (People's Daily, 7 August 2006)

Aso urges Yasukuni be secular memorial (Asahi, 7 August 2006)