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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 20, 2003)

Koizumi Keeps Sino-Japanese Ties Locked in the Past with Shrine Visit

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

2003 has barely begun, but almost unbelievably Sino-Japanese relations have already been considerably strained by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's latest visit to a controversial war shrine. As on previous occasions, both China and South Korea immediately lodged high-level protests. The South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung, went so far as to cancel a planned meeting with the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi. Koizumi's shrine visit also coincided with a ruling by the Kyoto District Court that rejected a compensation lawsuit filed by former wartime Chinese labourers for being forcibly brought to Japan to work in nickel mines in 1944. These two events will no doubt inflame Chinese public opinion, reinforcing the impression that after so many decades Japan has not yet come to terms with its wartime past. This is truly a regrettable way to herald in the 31st year of bilateral ties.

Naturally, all nations feel the need to honour their war dead and Japan is no exception in this matter. However, the shrine at the heart of the controversy not only honours Japan's war dead but also several class-A war criminals. It is the presence of these war criminals that causes Japan's Asian neighbours to vigorously protest when a visit by a Japanese Prime Minister is made. Chinese officials take the stance that the way Japan tackles the Yasukuni issue reflects how Japan really interprets its own past aggression against China and other neighbouring countries. Most ordinary Chinese simply see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.

The 14 January 2003 visit marks Koizumi's third to the Yasukuni Shrine since he took up the premiership in April 2001. He first went to the shrine in August 2001 and then again in April 2002, each time causing deep diplomatic friction with China and South Korea. His April 2002 pilgrimage led China to cancel an expected prime-ministerial trip to the country, which was supposed to be part of the celebrations for the thirtieth anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Prime Minister Koizumi says he does not view his pilgrimages to Yasukuni as harmful to Sino-Japanese relations and he has also stated his intention to visit the shrine once a year. After leaving the shrine he was quoted as saying that he hoped, "Our friendship with China and South Korea remains unchanged." From the angry protests and diplomatic snubs that followed each of his previous visits, it seems almost incomprehensible that Koizumi could hold such a view.

Despite the fact that diplomats and officials on each side agree on the need for both countries to build a forward looking relationship which is firmly rooted in the present, it seems that the weight of the past is too much for Koizumi and other high-profile Japanese politicians. Even though economic ties between China and Japan are booming, insensitivity still regularly mars top level political relations.

Analysts believe that Koizumi made an early pilgrimage this year before incoming Chinese Communist Party leader, Hu Jintao, and the new Korean President, Roh Moo Hyun, take up their posts. Even if this was a tactically timed visit, one has to question the underlying logic behind taking action that you know will inflame Chinese passions and stoke up wartime memories. As Prime Minister, it is Koizumi's responsibility to carefully consider the international consequences of his actions. If he feels a genuine spiritual need to visit the shrine, a secret visit at night could easily be arranged. One conducted in the glaring light of the media is certain to upset Japan's neighbours.

A solution to the Yasukuni issue has already been formulated by a government advisory panel set up to examine the subject. It recommended building a secular memorial to the war dead, but conservative politicians and the Japan Association for the Families of the War Dead are against the proposal. Since the Prime Minister has said he intends to visit Yasukuni each year, there is no doubt that the shrine will continue to be an impediment to improving bilateral relations for the foreseeable future.

2002 marked the 30th anniversary since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations and during the year many Chinese and Japanese citizens worked hard to try to improve bilateral links and friendships. For all these people, the Prime Minister's actions are difficult to comprehend and seem designed to reignite old animosities.

Despite considerable efforts made on both sides to forge a new kind of relationship, the Prime Minister's actions clearly demonstrate that clinging to the past is more important for Japan's leaders than normalizing relations in the present with its most important economic neighbour. Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun accurately summed up the essence of the current dilemma, "The past is important, but the future is much more important." When will prominent Japanese politicians learn this simple truth?

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