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Commentary (October 21, 2004)

Yasukuni Shrine Continues to Poison Sino-Japanese Relations

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent Cabinet reshuffle and the apparent political ascendancy of China's reform-minded President Hu Jintao created an opportunity for a gentle thawing in top-level Sino-Japanese dialogue. However, over the last few weeks, a series of bitter and long-rumbling disagreements have darkened the political horizon, effectively extinguishing any hopes for brighter bilateral skies ahead.

Koizumi's heir presumptive, Shinzo Abe, has added to the sense of gloom by reigniting a festering dispute that threatens long-term ties. In August he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which is one of the key sources of Sino-Japanese friction. It honors Japan's war dead, including 14 convicted Class-A war criminals. Abe also said Japanese prime ministers should pay homage at the shrine.

As economic bonds between the two neighbors continue to grow at phenomenal speed - China looks poised to become Japan's largest trading partner - optimism for a genuine breakthrough was high. In the first eight months of 2004, the total value of Japan's trade with China hit almost 11.6 trillion yen (US$106.2 billion), compared with 13.4 trillion yen with the US. As the two economies grow ever more intertwined, unease in the business community increases over the fragile state of political ties. There is palpable worry that if the situation deteriorates any further, Japanese companies could lose out in the increasingly competitive Chinese market.

A lengthy litany of unresolved territorial, political and historical disputes has plagued Sino-Japanese relations for decades, periodically straining relations. However, under the Koizumi administration the frequency and intensity of these incidents have drastically increased. The most alarming aspect about the current flare up is that this time Japan's political elite appears to have set itself on a collision course with Beijing, a move that could be disastrous for both nations, and one that may permanently damage bilateral relations.

Yasukuni Shrine focus of tension
Since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has adopted an aggressive and nationalist stance towards Beijing. The most high profile aspect of this approach has been his annual pilgrimage to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The Shinto facility is dedicated to the 2.5 million Japanese who have died in wars since 1853 including several class-A war criminals responsible for atrocities committed in China during WWII. Wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, who was executed for his crimes, is amongst those honoured at the shrine.

Many Asian countries view the facility as a symbol of Japan's militarist past, and Beijing believes that a prime minister paying homage at such an establishment is the clearest possible sign that Japan is not truly remorseful for its brutal wartime past. In April 2004, the Fukuoka District Court ruled that Koizumi's shrine excursions were unconstitutional, despite this he has pledge to continue to pay his respects at the shrine.

Beijing and Tokyo at odds over Yasukuni
President Hu recently reiterated China's position to Japan's Lower House Speaker, Yohei Kono. He reminded him, "The most pressing issue facing us is the skillful handling of the Yasukuni issue. The longer the issue is left unresolved, the deeper the emotional hurt suffered by the [Chinese] victims. There could also be side effects in other areas of exchange and cooperation."

Koizumi and rightwing lawmakers take a different view which was summed up well in an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun [newspaper] on 6 January 2004, just after Koizumi's last visit to the shrine, "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 paper added, "While the fact that the shrine honors Class-A Japanese war criminals along with the war dead usually becomes an issue, it is a traditional culture and custom of Japan to mourn for the dead equally." Koizumi adopted a similar line in a statement after his last pilgrimage. He said, "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."

Koizumi's shrine forays have made him a virtual Pariah with the Chinese leadership. This status was most recently confirmed when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to hold a bilateral meeting with him on the sidelines of this month's Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Hanoi. Unlike almost every other major world-leader, Koizumi has never been invited to Beijing to meet with Hu since he took office.

Tensions escalate over the past month
Over the past month, sharp disagreements have emerged with Beijing over Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). China, one of five veto-wielding UNSC members, has been highly critical of Japan's aspirations, saying other candidates are more worthy. Kong Quan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, "We believe that if a country wishes to play a responsible role in international affairs, it must have a clear understanding of the historical questions concerning itself."

Beijing is also apparently unhappy with Koizumi's selection of Nobutaka Machimura as the new Foreign Minister. China dislikes the nationalistic views Machimura expressed while Education Minister as well as his own excursions to the Yasukuni Shrine.

A new row over the Nanjing Massacre has compounded current woes. Last week, a group of right-wing local politicians managed to force a popular magazine for young people, Weekly Young Jump, from publishing a comic strip depicting the Nanjing Massacre. The lawmakers claimed there is no proof the atrocity ever happened, ignoring the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal's determination that over 140,000 Chinese were slaughtered, while many Chinese historians estimate the death toll to be as high as 300,000 or more.

The final and most devastating nail in the coffin was meticulously hammered into place by Shinzo Abe, currently the strongest contender to succeed Koizumi and the grandson of a former prime minister. Abe has breathed deadly new life into the Yasukuni controversy. During a recent TV interview, he boldly claimed that just like his mentor Koizumi, he too would visit the contentious shrine if he inherits the political throne.

Next prime minister should visit Yasukuni
Abe confessed that if he gained the coveted crown, he would feel obligated to pay homage at the shrine. With a sense of passion in his voice, he explained, "It is only natural for the leader of a country to go there to console those who have died for their country."

Rejecting arguments about the separation of the state and religion as well as the question of whether a prime minister should only he allowed to go to the shrine in his capacity as a private citizen, Abe said, "It doesn't make sense to argue about if the visit is official or not. The prime minister should just be allowed to go there."

Abe last paid his respects at the shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's WWII surrender and the day considered the most provocative for making such an outing. Even Koizumi has avoided going to the shrine on that day, although before he became prime minister he said he would. At the time of Abe's latest pilgrimage, he was the Liberal Democratic Party's secretary general, its second highest ranking party official after the prime minister.

Abe stepped down from his post in the Cabinet reshuffle, saying he wanted to take responsibility for his party's poor showing in the Upper House election. In an unusual move, he was gently demoted one position down to deputy secretary general of the LDP.

Many observers considered the slight downward hop a shrewd ploy, allowing Abe to put some strategic distance between himself and the Prime Minister, better positioning him for a shot at the number one slot. Since his demotion, he has maintained a high profile and opinion polls consistently show him to be the overwhelming favorite to replace Koizumi.

No solution to Yasukuni issue on the horizon
Although the shrine was a focal point for Japan's wartime military regime, in the postwar period it only became internationally controversial when convicted class-A war criminals were enshrined there along with the war dead in 1978. The collective enshrinement was made public in 1979. Emperor Showa (1926-1989) never visited the shrine after the Class-A war criminals were enshrined within it, and neither has Emperor Akihito (1989-present).

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made an official visit to the shrine in 1985, causing such uproar in neighboring Asian countries that no serving prime minister dared to pay homage at the Shinto establishment until Koizumi came to office in April 2001. Since the 1985 Nakasone visit, the shrine has been a flash-point for Sino-Japanese tensions.

In order to try to defuse the tensions created by Koizumi's annual visits, a government advisory panel was established to look at ways of resolving the issue. The panel members were handpicked by the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, a close ally of Koizumi.

In December 2002, the advisory panel recommended that the government build a secular war memorial that would coexist along side the shrine. The panel said the new facility should be free of religious affiliation, and should be dedicated to mourning the war dead rather than consoling their spirits. These changes it said would make the new facility an appropriate place for anybody to mourn those killed in past wars and decrease international tensions over the shrine.

However, in January 2003, the government effectively shelved the panel's recommendations after criticisms from LDP lawmakers. There was also very strong opposition from the Japanese Association for the Bereaved Families of War Dead, one of the LDP's most influential support groups. The association claimed a new memorial would greatly harm the significance of Yasukuni.

At the press conference to explain why the government had decided to ignore the panel's recommendations Fukuda said, "It is meaningless if the memorial is built in an environment where it does not have unanimous support from the public." Since then, the Yasukuni issue has continually poisoned Sino-Japanese relations.

Chinese policymakers shocked
Abe's remarks have genuinely shocked Chinese policymakers who were working on the assumption that no future prime minister would dare risk stirring up the kind of anti-Japanese sentiment Koizumi has generated. China's Japan policy has been based around the principle of isolating Koizumi and patiently waiting for his successor. His premiership has been considered an aberration, not a new trend. Abe's comments challenged this assessment, completely altering the future dynamics of the equation.

If the leadership of both countries does not tread extremely carefully in the coming months, relations between them may become locked into the currently unsatisfactory "hot economic, cold political" configuration, a situation which would cast a dark shadow over their long-term relationship.

Good top-level Sino-Japanese dialogue is a key component for smooth regional development. The most worrying aspect about the current situation is that Japan's elite lawmakers just don't seem capable of grasping this fundamental fact.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. A different and shorter version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 19 October 2004,, and those sections which have been reproduce are republished with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications