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Yasukuni, the Thorn in Japan's Diplomatic Hide

Friday, May 27, 2005 Posted: 06:56 AM JST

Ever since Japanese Prime Minister started visiting Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects to all Japanese fallen in wars, Japan has had troubles with its neigbors. Besides 2.5 million war dead, Yasukuni enshrines 14 convicted Class A war criminals, including Japan's military leader during the Second World War, Hideki Tojo. Japan's neighbors therefore see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression and emphetically criticize Japanese leaders for paying homage here.

This week Koizumi's announcement that he would once again visit the shinto shrine later this year angered visiting Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi so much that she cancelled her appointment with the Japanese Prime Minister and left for home one day early. An unprecedented diplomatic snub that both surprised and hurt the Japanese, as was undoubtably intended.

On Tuesday China confirmed that the Yasukuni Shrine issue was the reason behind the abrupt cancellation.

"Repeated comments disadvantageous to the development of Sino-Japanese relations made by Japan's prime minister and other leaders during the period of Vice Premier Wu Yi's visit to Japan eliminated the atmosphere and conditions necessary for a meeting,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said at a news conference. He also repeated China's criticism of the Yasukuni Shrine visits.

"Japan's leaders have broken a promise to apologize for the past in this the 60th anniversary year of the victory in the war of resistance against Japan,'' Kong said. "Making repeated mistaken comments on Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes Class-A war criminals, shows an utter lack of consideration for the emotions of the many people who suffered great damage.''

In spite of this clear statement by China Koizumi said Tuesday that China's move to scrap Wu's meeting with him would not affect his decision for his fifth trip to the Shinto shrine.

One of the reasons that Koizumi has made the visits is the strong influence of Nippon Izokukai, the national association of bereaved families of the war dead. It has long been one of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's strongest supporters.

Nippon Izokukai has lobbied prime ministers and cabinet members to visit Yasukuni Shrine since it was established in 1953. It created a channel through the LDP for its senior officials to be elected to the Diet, and the group's regional branches have functioned as vote-collecting machines for the party. Its enormous influence was clearly shown when Masatoshi Tokunaga, a general director of Nippon Izokukai's predecessor organization, became president of the House of Councillors.

Only after a visit to Nippon Izokukai's headquarters before the watershed LDP presidential election in 2001, did Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi start to include visits to Yasukuni Shrine in his platform.

But the organization is loosing more and more of its power base as its members are growing old and dying. Many Japanese themselves feel confused about Yasukuni. Some Japanese are now also questioning the wisdom of angering one of Japan's largest trading partners, which also happens to be its largest neighbor.

One way to solve the problem would be to separate the two issues of war criminals and honoring Japan's war dead. This is a discussion that has hardly been attempted in Japan.

"The issue isn't visiting Yasukuni, but to recognize that the war criminals are there,'' said Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, at a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday. "I don't think Prime Minister Koizumi goes to Yasukuni for the wartime criminals.''

The same day the Asahi newspaper reported that former South Korean president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung said that removing the Class-A war criminals from Yasukuni would restore Japan's relations with neighboring countries. "If that option is realized, I will not express opposition against the visits to Yasukuni Shrine,'' he was quoted as saying.

The article continued saying that Koizumi had "promised at a meeting in Shanghai in 2001 to consider building a new memorial facility that could replace Yasukuni Shrine and enable anyone to worship there without hesitation." Kim expressed dissatisfaction that these discussions were discontinued.

China clearly considers the Yasukuni Shrine visits as a major stumbling block to improved relations with Japan. It doesn't understand why Japan doesn't heed its calls to discontinue the visits.

"If they are still unaware of how important this issue is to the Chinese," the China Daily reported about the Yasukuni visits yesterday, "the Japanese Prime Minister and his peers must be told in clear terms that there is a limit to our patience on matters of principle, among which is Yasukuni. There should be no more ambiguity on this, strategic or not."

The article continues ominously: "No matter how sincere we are about good neighbourly ties, they will never materialize until our goodwill is responded to with equal sincerity."

Keywords: national_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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