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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 9, 2004)

Koizumi's Dangerous Game of Nationalism

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

On New Year's Day millions of Japanese normally enjoy visiting a shrine or temple. Such pilgrimages are a customary scene across the nation, but this year one particular outing caused an international storm. To some surprise, Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, paid homage at the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a site which Japan's neighbors strongly associate with its militaristic past. More alarmingly, the visit seemed to indicate that a broader prime-ministerial strategy was at work aimed at reinterpreting the country's wartime past.

To Japan's neighbors, the Yasukuni Shrine represents some of the worst aspects of the country's past. During Japan's colonial rule in Asia, its military rulers made the shrine a rallying point for ultra-nationalist sentiment. Today most Japanese primarily view the shrine as a monument to the country's war dead. However, it also honors several class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo. In recent years, the site has frequently been the focus of international controversy.

Both Beijing and Seoul regard a prime-ministerial outing to the shrine as a sign that Japan does not wish to atone for its wartime aggression. Many ordinary Chinese and Koreans find a high-level visit offensive, believing it demonstrates Japan is unrepentant for the suffering its troops inflicted on the region.

A statement by a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shin Bong Kil, which was broadcast on Japanese national news, sums up regional feeling on the issue. He said, "Our government expresses deep regret that Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi paid homage at the Yasukuni Shrine which houses memorials to war criminals, who undermined world peace and inflicted intolerable damage and pain on our people." He added, "We strongly urge Prime Minister Koizumi not to visit the shrine again."

China's Xinhua News Agency said Koizumi's actions, "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," while the Chinese Foreign Ministry's official web site said Koizumi "ignored the sentiments of Chinese and other Asian people toward Japan's wartime aggression."

Despite the uproar that accompanies a prime-ministerial sojourn to Yasukuni, since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has gone there an unprecedented four times. His first foray was in August 2001, followed by another in April 2002 and then one in January 2003. This trio had already made him a persona non grata in Beijing. His latest excursion is almost certain to lead to the Japanese leader's permanent exclusion from China.

Before Koizumi's August 2001 sortie, only one serving postwar prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, had officially visited the shrine and this was back in 1985. The torrent of protest that greeted Nakasone's visit was enough to persuade him not to make another. According to an interview he gave in September 2001, Nakasone decided not to make a second visit for fear of seriously damaging Sino-Japanese ties.

Unlike Nakasone, Koizumi has displayed no outward concern about the damage he has caused to Sino-Japanese ties. Indeed, on New Year's Day, a beaming Koizumi displayed the relaxed and happy air of a carefree holidaymaker. Wearing a traditional black-crested kimono, a cheerful Koizumi merrily waved to onlookers as white-robed Shinto priests led him up the steps of the shrine. After paying his respects to the war dead, Koizumi announced to the crowd, "I feel refreshed."

The premier maintained his bright holiday-like manner when speaking to the press afterwards. Summarizing the visit, he told the gathered media, ''I prayed for peace and prosperity at the Yasukuni Shrine, signing my name in the visitor's book as prime minister.'' He added, "Japan's peace and prosperity are not only the result of the efforts of people today; they are also built on the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the war even though they did not want to die."

Asked about how he thought countries in the region would react, Koizumi responded in an almost jovial tone, "I don't think the people of any country would criticize the people of another for paying respect to their own history, traditions and customs." As on previous occasions, Koizumi defied logic, insisting that neighboring countries would not be offended by his actions.

The prime minister's casual manner and apparent complete lack of concern about the fierce reaction his visit would generate was perhaps an attempt to conceal the real motive behind his actions. One thing is for certain, Koizumi is a highly calculating and masterful politician, who is fully aware of the regional tensions his actions cause.

In the Japanese press, a lot has been written over the last two years as to why Koizumi is so determined to repeatedly visit the shrine. These various theories can be roughly put into the following four basic categories:

(1) He pledged to visit the shrine once a year in his campaign to become president of the Liberal Democratic Party and he is honoring this commitment.
(2) Koizumi wants to attract right-wing conservative voters for electoral purposes.
(3) Koizumi views the shrine as an important spiritual symbol of Japanese patriotism that he is obliged to visit as the country's leader.
(4) It is a family duty to pay homage as some of his kin were related to kamikaze suicide-pilots for whom the shrine held great significance.

To varying degrees, all these elements probably exerted some influence on Koizumi's decision, but another greater unifying factor appears to be emerging.

By making high-profile visits to a notorious wartime-related shrine, what Koizumi appears to be attempting is a reinterpretation of Japan's past in a more distinctive nationalist hue than has previously been acceptable. His basic message appears to be that the way Japan interprets the war should be a matter solely for Japan and nobody else. While this approach largely ignores the suffering of other Asian peoples in the region, it strikes a cord with many Japanese. Opinion polls taken after previous visits indicate that about 50% of people support Koizumi's actions.

Koizumi will soon dispatch Japanese troops to Iraq. This will be the first time since the Second World War that Japan has sent its military into an active combat zone, marking a major psychological milestone in postwar Japanese history. Koizumi has also stated that he wants to amend the Constitution, perhaps modifying the war-renouncing Article nine.

The prime minister is gradually dismantling the constraints imposed on Japan in the aftermath of its defeat. His objective is to create a more assertive and nationalistic Japan. The controversial shine visits appear to be just one component in this strategy.

Koizumi has proved that he is an extremely skillful politician and may eventually achieve his goal of reshaping how Japan sees its own past and present role in Asia. However, if this neo-nationalist agenda does succeed, it would create serious tensions between Japan and its neighbors, particularly China.

In reality, Koizumi is playing a highly dangerous game in which success would actually be disadvantageous to Japan's long-term interests. History has clearly shown that one-dimensional nationalism which ignores the legitimate concerns and grievances of neighboring countries is a recipe for disaster. If Koizumi could just stop for one moment to contemplate why 2.5 million Japanese soldiers are commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine, he might understand the folly of his current high risk strategy.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 5 January 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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