Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a week ago paid homage to Japan’s World War II dead at the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing South Korea’s and China’s condemnation, which was heightened by the date of his visit – the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Despite repeated protests from Beijing and Seoul, Koizumi kept a promise to make a sixth pilgrimage as premier to the shrine – which honours Japan’s 2.8 million war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals – before he steps down next month. The visit was the first made in 21 years by a prime minister on the anniversary of the war’s 1945 end, which is remembered in Japan as a defeat but which South Korea celebrates as Liberation Day after it and China both suffered under Japan’s often-brutal wartime occupation.
That colonial past has worsened relations between Tokyo and the two countries, and the shrine and Koizumi’s visits there have brought charges from Seoul and Beijing that they glorify Japan’s past military aggression and imperialism.
South Korea said Koizumi’s ‘nationalistic attitude’ has worsened bilateral relations and China said the shrine visit was a move that ‘challenges international justice.’
Koizumi defended his visits, insisting that they are to pray for peace and adding that he is only respecting the war dead in general, not the war criminals in particular.
‘Even if I avoided August 15, I would be criticized,’ local media quoted Koizumi as saying. ‘Whatever date I visited the shrine does not make any difference.’
‘It is not good that China and South Korea say that they will accept summit talks on the condition that there would be no shrine visit,’ Koizumi added.
Dressed in a formal tailcoat, the prime minister reportedly paid 30,000 yen out of his own pocket for flowers to lay at the sight and signed the shrine’s guest book as ‘Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi,’ marking the visit as one of a political leader rather than a private citizen.
When he last visited the shrine on October 17, the premier wore a business suit and bowed at the altar without entering the main hall or signing the shrine’s visitors book, prompting him to say his visit was made as an individual, not as Japan’s leader.
Koizumi has visited the Tokyo shrine every year since he took office in 2001 but had never done so on August 15.
The premier, who was 3 years old at the time of Japan’s surrender, said it is his constitutional right to exercise freedom of religion and offer prayers.
But Koizumi’s shrine visits have also spurred criticism from his own political circles.
The leader of the New Komeito party, the coalition partner for Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democrats, expressed strong regret over Koizumi’s move.
‘It is very regrettable because [the visit came] on the symbolic day of August 15,’ Takenori Kanzaki said. ‘I had repeatedly asked the prime minister to refrain from visiting the shrine when I met him.’
After the shrine visit, Koizumi attended the annual ceremony to commemorate the end of World War II held at Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo, where more than 6,000 people assembled to pay homage to the war dead.
In his speech, Japan’s premier pledged never to wage war again and to contribute to world peace.
Koizumi also touched on Japan’s war responsibility as he admitted that its military aggression had caused tremendous damage and pain, especially to the people of Asian countries.
‘While humbly accepting the past and historical fact, we carry the responsibility of passing the lessons we learned from the war to the next generation,’ Koizumi said.
Emperor Akihito – son of Hirohito, Japan’s wartime emperor – and Empress Michiko also attended the annual ceremony at Nippon Budokan.
Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989, reportedly disapproved of the shrine’s decision in 1978 to honour the convicted war criminals, according to a memorandum kept by a former Imperial Household Agency grand steward and were revealed to the public last month.
Both Hirohito and Akihito stopped visiting Yasukuni after 1978.
However, the controversy many not end after Koizumi steps down. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, frontrunner for the top post, has refused to comment on whether he will continue to visit the shrine – he has been four times in the last two years – if elected.
‘I want to maintain the feeling that I should join my hands in prayer and express my respect for the war dead who fought and died for the nation, and this feeling has not changed,’ Abe said earlier this month.
Abe’s rivals in the September 20 election, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso have both said that they would not pay homage at Yasukuni if they were serving as prime minister.
(Thanks to: http://patricksperry.wordpress.com/2006/08/15/war-veterans-and-respecting-the-dead)