China-Japan Relations under the Koizumi Administration Series: - What are the Solutions to the Yasukuni dilemma?
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
A list of articles on a similar theme by the same author can be found here.
This article examines a numbers of solutions to current China-Japan tensions over the Yasukuni Shrine issues, accessing their feasibility.
(1) The best solution would be for Koizumi to refrain from visiting Yasukuni until his term in office expires in September 2006. He could forego a pilgrimage this year on the grounds that the sensitive 60th anniversary of the end of WWII is not an appropriate time, and make his next shrine excursion just after leaving office. This is conceivable, but unlikely given Koizumi's deeply held political belief that in order to be a strong and effective leader you must listen to your inner voice.
Everything we know about Koizumi's political style indicates that he is unlikely to bend to political pressure. Thus, a shrine pilgrimage this year is highly likely, especially in light of Koizumi's recent difficulties in getting his postal legislation through parliament. In fact, he is more likely to feel the need to show what he considers to be strong leadership.
The question is really not if he will go, but when will he go? Asked about his shrine going intentions, Koizumi usually says "I will make a decision appropriately."
Given that July and August are the most sensitive months, and both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have personally asked him not to go during the 60th anniversary of the ending of WWII, it is possible that he might postpone his visit until late September or beyond in order to lessen the impact of his annual excursion. However, domestic political pressures may force him to make an earlier foray.
Can anything be done to avert or lessen the impact of the visits?
(2) One solution would be to remove the names of the 14 Class-A war criminals from the shrine as they form the focus of the dispute. This scenario is extremely unlikely given that the Yasukuni authorities have publicly declared, it "cannot separate souls once they are enshrined as gods." They have also said, "This is a matter of Japanese religious faith…Their separate enshrinement will never happen…There was no recognition of war criminals among the Japanese at all."
(3) Building a new memorial free of religious affiliation, dedicated to mourning the war dead rather than consoling their spirits is another option. This idea was recommended by a government advisory panel in December 2002, but was quickly shelved. Such an institution might eventually be established, but it would take years to create and face stiff opposition from nationalist politicians and the Japan Association for the Families of the War Dead.
More importantly, it would not necessarily solve the issue because Yasukuni would still exist and if a serving prime minister decided to visit it, the entire situation would be back at square one.
(4) Growing public opposition to the shrine visits might force the prime minister to suspend pilgrimages. A host of recent opinion polls have indicated that the majority of the public is now against the visits and awareness of the issue has sharply increased since the first visit in August 2001. However, Koizumi's deep-seated political beliefs would probably incline him to ignore such sentiments.
(5) International tension over the shrine might be eased if the Chinese and Koreans accepted Koizumi's explanation that he pays homage at the shrine merely to honor the war dead in a traditional Japanese manner and prays for peace. However given the intense storm of controversy surrounding the shrine since Nakasone's 1985 visit, such a shift in overseas public opinion seems extremely improbable.
For the foreseeable future, Japan's Asian neighbours are unlikely to accept a Japanese leader visiting a shrine that honours wartime leaders who inflicted immense harm on their countries.
So, what other solutions are there?
(6) One obvious answer is to replace Koizumi as premier since the focal point of current friction with Beijing is directly linked to his Yasukuni pilgrimages. Until recently, the chances of Koizumi being ditched before his term in office expires in September 2006 seemed rather slim, but the large rebellion by members of his own party over postal privatization and the opposition's strong showing in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election has put Koizumi's premiership under pressure. It is conceivable that he may be ousted by his own party.
Chinese policymakers have been working on the assumption that any future prime minister would not wish to antagonize China in the way Koizumi has done. His premiership is seen a temporary aberration in bilateral political relations. However, this calculation may prove flawed as several potential Koizumi successors have publicly declared that they personally would visit Yasukuni if they succeed to Koizumi's throne.
Most prominent among them is Shinzo Abe, LDP Deputy Secretary General, who in a TV interview about Yasukuni 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 is a leading figure amongst a group of 116 LDP lawmakers who recently form a panel to support Koizumi's Yasukuni visits for the sake of "peace" and "national interests." So, replacing Koizumi might not change anything.
There are China-friendly contenders for the premiership such as Yasuo Fukuda, and it could be that their chances of succeeding Koizumi are boosted by Sino-Japanese strains. In the recent Tokyo assembly elections, poor relations with China was an issue and opinion polls show that the public is concerned about the matter.
(7) Another solution would be a change in government and leader by the formation of a new coalition. The Yasukuni issue has definitely led to strain with junior coalition partner New Komeito. At the beginning of June its leader, Takenori Kanzaki, reiterated his party's call for Koizumi to refrain from visiting Yasukuni. He said another Yasukuni visit "would have a negative impact to the foundation of the ruling coalition." However, he also added, "A decision on whether to maintain the coalition will not be made on the Yasukuni issue alone, but on a more comprehensive judgment." In reality, New Komeito does not appear to be in any hurry to bolt the current coalition despite its unhappiness over Yasukuni.
(8) Another possibility would be if the opposition Democratic Party won the election, this would certainly lead to better Japan-China relations as opposition leaders already enjoy good contacts with Beijing. It is certainly a possibility, especially if a snap-election is called over post privatization, but it may also be sometime before an election is called.
Other articles in this series look at the possible consequences for China-Japan relations if tensions over the Yasukuni Shrine persist and other aspects related to this issue.