A visit and its aftermath

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to a war memorial touches a raw nerve and draws unprecedented protests from the country's immediate neighbours.

JAPANESE Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's August 13 visit to a war memorial in the country may help him earn considerable domestic dividends in the future, but his action has set off an international furore. Ever since his unexpected election as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democrats (LDP) in the middle of this year, Koizumi had been promising to visit the Yazukuni shrine, the symbolic nerve-centre of Japanese militarism during the 1930s and the 1940s when the country embarked on an imperialistic programme. The ashes of many convicted Japanese war criminals are interred in the shrine.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi being led by a Shinto priest at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on August 13.-KYODO/AP

Only one Prime Minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, had visited the controversial shrine earlier. Nakasone paid obeisance to the Japanese war dead at Yasukuni in 1985, and the international outcry it caused was sufficient to dissuade other Prime Ministers from visiting the war memorial.

In the Shinto religion, after death a person is honoured as a divine being in a shrine. The ashes kept at the Yasukuni shrine belong to such people as General Hideki Tojo, all convicted war criminals who were responsible for atrocities during the Second World War. Millions of Chinese and Koreans who are alive today lost their near and dear ones during the long years of Japanese occupation of their countries. Almost every leading right-wing Japanese politician has visited the shrine as a symbolic gesture to express denial of wrongdoing during the War.

A sizable section of the Japanese public believes that most of those who died in the War were patriots who fought for the country. Education at the school level saw to it that the post-War generation remained unaware of the brutality unleashed by imperial Japan during the War. Most Japanese therefore seemed unconcerned about Koizumi's controversial visit just two days before the 56th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Two days later, five Cabinet colleagues of Koizumi visited the shrine to commemorate the anniversary, further inflaming public opinion among the country's neighbours.

Although right-wing sections in Japan welcomed Koizumi's visit to the war memorial, they were critical of his timing. They had wanted him to be present at the memorial on the occasion of the anniversary. That would have been even more insulting to countries such as China and North and South Korea, which were the worst victims of Japanese depredations during the War.

During his visit Koizumi was careful in his choice of words. In a statement issued soon after the visit he acknowledged that Japan had caused "immeasurable disaster and pain, and Japan should never walk on the path to war". The Prime Minister expressed his "deepest regret and remorse towards all the victims of the War" in the context of the country's "regrettable history". But Koizumi also emphasised that he was determined to honour those who died fighting for Japan; he said that the country's present "peace and prosperity" was built upon their noble sacrifice".

This kind of sentiment expressed at the highest levels of Japan's leadership inflames public opinion in countries that bore the brunt of Japanese occupation. Predictably, the reaction to Koizumi's visit was immediate. Yukio Hatayama, the leader of the Opposition in Parliament, predicted that the visit would cause diplomatic setbacks for Japan. Earlier, Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka had opposed any such visit. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan had sent a message to Koizumi requesting him not to visit the shrine.

Both China and South Korea were already angry over Koizumi's tendency to pander to the extreme Right in Japan. In particular, the Chinese and the Koreans were appalled at the right-wing's attempts to introduce new history textbooks that not only glossed over the Japanese brutalities during the War but extolled Japanese militarism. Koizumi has been ambivalent on the issue, refusing either to criticise the contents of the proposed textbooks or use his authority to veto their introduction. The revisionist textbooks have, however, been rejected by high school boards all over Japan.

Koizumi's visit to the shrine seems to have reinforced Chinese and Korean perceptions about his ideological predilections. Both countries made it clear that they considered the visit an affront to their national sensitivities. A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said that his country viewed the visit as being "related to Japanese militarism". In a statement, he said that Koizumi had ignored continued expressions of concern by the South Korean government as well as the "strong opposition within Japan".

Family members of some of those who died fighting for Japan hold a protest march in Tokyo on August 15 against Koizumi's visit to the war memorial.-CHIAKI TSUKUMO/AP

Seoul further clarified that it was not impressed by the Japanese Prime Minister's expressions of regret while simultaneously paying respects to war criminals responsible for "inflicting indescribable damage" in the region. In a highly publicised incident, 20 South Korean citizens publicly cut off the tips of their little fingers in Seoul to protest against Koizumi's visit to the shrine.

Expressions of protest came from all over the region. North Korea characterised the visit as "an intentional and deliberate move to spread the militarist idea in Japanese society". It has alleged that "militarism is raising its head again in Japan" and said that the visit was "an insult to the Asian people who suffered unbearable disasters" at the hands of the Japanese whose "top class war criminals are entombed" in the Yasukuni shrine. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who during his term in office has done more to repair Japan-South Korea relations than his predecessors, said that it would be difficult to deal with Japan "with any degree of trust in the future".

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that China remained opposed to Japanese leaders "paying their respects to and worshipping at the Yasukuni shrine" under any circumstance. The statement questioned the ability of the Japanese to "sincerely regret that aggressive period of history" or comprehend the feelings of the people in Asian countries which suffered under Japanese occupation. It added that the Japanese leader's "flawed gesture has damaged the foundations of Sino-Japanese relations".

A spokesperson for Filipino women who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese during the War said that Koizumi's visit "honours Japanese soldiers who raped women".

THAT the diplomatic spat between Japan and its neighbours is likely to be a long-drawn-out one is clear from the stance adopted by China and South Korea. Both countries have refused to respond to Koizumi's request for high-level talks to mend ties. Koizumi's attempts to meet his South Korean counterpart during the United Nations World Summit for Children in September in New York may not succeed.

Seoul has laid down tough pre-conditions for talks, which include a reiteration of the 1998 Japanese apology for War-time atrocities and an open acknowledgement by Koizumi about the correctness of the decision by almost all Japanese school boards to reject the controversial textbooks.

Similarly, China has laid down conditions for a possible meeting between President Jiang Zemin and Koizumi during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum meeting in Shanghai in October. A Chinese Foreign Office spokesman said that Japan had to create "the necessary environment and conditions" for such a meeting to materialise.

The recent developments have left the United States worried. For it hopes to build a common front in the region against China comprising the U.S., Japan and South Korea, under the Pentagon's security umbrella. But with Seoul increasingly wary of Tokyo, the Washington blueprint is threatening to unravel. South Korea is reluctant to let Japan play a key security role in the region until Tokyo sorts out what many people in Korea call the "problem of memory" concerning Japan's behaviour before and during the Second World War.

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