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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 15, 2004)

Koizumi Ignores Chinese Sentiment about Visiting Yasukuni

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

In Japan there is an old proverb that says what you do on the first day of the year sets the course for the whole of it. Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, seems destined to prove that there is some truth in this old adage. In the bright morning sunshine of New Year's Day, a cheerful Koizumi made his fourth pilgrimage to the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a site which China and Japan's other neighbors strongly associate with its militaristic past. As 2004 dawned, Japan's relations with China were once again strained. Moreover, this annual shrine visit was starting to look as if it was part of a broader strategy to reinterpret the country's wartime past.

Since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has gone to the contentious shrine an unprecedented four times. Before his first sortie in August 2001, only one serving postwar prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, had officially visited the shrine and this was back in 1985. Nakasone later admitted to not making a second visit for fear of seriously damaging Sino-Japanese ties. Regrettably, the current prime minister has displayed no real concern about the tensions he has caused in bilateral relations. The Japanese public also does not seem especially worried about Koizumi offending China.

An NHK opinion poll taken after the visit indicated that about 49% of people supported Koizumi's actions while 41% were opposed. A January 6 editorial in Japan's influential Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper defended Koizumi. It stated, "The issue of when and in what manner a prime minister of a nation should pray for the war dead is, primarily, a domestic issue to be decided on the basis of the country's traditions and customs. Other countries are in no position to say anything about it."

The Yomiuri even went as far as to brand the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as unpatriotic. It said of the DPJ, "even if a political party is in the opposition camp, if it gives a foreign country an excuse to meddle in the domestic affairs of Japan, then that act runs counter to national interests." The Yomiuri added, "The fact that Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine have become a diplomatic issue is extraordinary."

During Japan's colonial expansion period, its military rulers made the Yasukuni Shrine a focal point for ultra-nationalist sentiment. Today most Japanese primarily view the site as a memorial to the country's war dead. However, since 1978 it has also honored several class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo. In recent years, the shrine has frequently been at the center of dispute with China.

Beijing has long taken the view that a Japanese leader paying homage at a place which is so strongly connected with Japan's wartime regime is a sign the country has not atoned for its past aggression. This is a position that has been repeatedly made clear to Koizumi.

Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing even took the usual step of publicly reminding Koizumi that as Japan's leader, he must consider the feelings of the Chinese people before visiting the controversial shrine. The Chinese Ambassador to Tokyo, Wu Dawei, was more forthright simply asking "Why does Mr. Koizumi continue to worship at the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are enshrined?"

All these diplomatic efforts were designed to dissuade Koizumi from making another problematic shrine visit and to reduce tension in Sino-Japanese relations. However, before the year has even really begun, Koizumi has damaged bilateral ties. Is this a sensible way to develop good relations with China?

(Copyright 2004 South China Morning Post. A different and longer version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 8 January 2004 and is republished with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications