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War Shrine Controversy Growing

Pressure from outside and inside Japan mounts on the prime minister to end visits to a memorial that honors criminals as well as heroes.

June 06, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — The controversial Japanese war memorial that casts such heat and anger across Asia is a quiet place in the midst of Tokyo's bustle, a sanctuary of reverence for the nation's war dead and for carefully burnished memories of the cause for which they died.

It is holy ground that a swelling segment of the Japanese public believes their prime minister should no longer set foot upon.

Calls are mounting here for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to abandon his annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the privately funded Shinto memorial that honors nearly 2.5 million Japanese soldiers, including men the outside world regards as war criminals but whom the priests of Yasukuni venerate as patriots.

Japan's neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, have criticized Koizumi's vows to visit Yasukuni again this year. They say the pilgrimages are evidence of Japan's lack of repentance for its occupations and colonization in the imperial era, and are part of its ongoing determination to airbrush its history.

But in recent days, Koizumi has begun to face sharp criticism about Yasukuni visits from the Japanese political establishment as well. Even some conservatives in his Liberal Democratic Party are questioning whether paying homage at Yasukuni is worth the harm to Japan's reputation.

Several prominent political leaders and media outlets have publicly urged Koizumi to stop going to Yasukuni. Some have also called for reviving a plan to build an alternative, nonreligious national memorial to the Japanese war dead, one unstained by association with leading war criminals.

"I understand the prime minister visits the shrine out of his personal beliefs; however, a prime minister should also think how his conduct will affect the national interest," former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told an economic symposium in Tokyo on Sunday. An outspoken Japanese nationalist who abandoned his own visits to Yasukuni in 1985 after Chinese protests, Nakasone told the gathering that "it would be an admirable political decision to stop visiting the shrine."

Nakasone is one of eight former prime ministers urging Koizumi not to visit the shrine this year. Japanese media reported that Yohei Kono, speaker of parliament, approached the former leaders to craft a powerful joint message to Koizumi that the visits to Yasukuni were imperiling relations with Beijing and harming Japan's interests.

The view was echoed by Takenori Kanzaki, leader of the New Komeito Party, whose bloc of parliamentary votes keeps Koizumi's government in power. An opinion poll released last week showed nearly three in five Japanese opposed Koizumi making another Yasukuni visit, a significant change from the evenly divided views long shown by surveys on the subject.

Concerns about deteriorating relations with China have grown since the violent anti-Japanese protests in several Chinese cities this spring, ostensibly over Japan's failure to acknowledge its wartime atrocities against other Asian nations. China now rivals the U.S. in importance as an economic partner to Japan, and Japanese business leaders were alarmed by the attacks against their interests in China.

Their mood only darkened when Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi cut short what was supposed to be a fence-mending visit two weeks ago. She refused to meet Koizumi, a highly publicized snub that Beijing blamed on the prime minister's repeated avowals during her visit that he would visit Yasukuni this year.

"It's important to keep good relations with China in a globalized world," said Masaki Okajima, 39, as he toured displays of 20th century war relics at Yasukuni. "I have lots of Chinese friends, and they are very nice to me, but I have to apologize to them for our history.

"Japan is still hated in parts of the international community," he added. "The leader of the country has a responsibility to find a better approach to this issue."

There is no sign Koizumi will bend to the public mood. The prime minister continues to insist that his visits reflect a "matter of one's heart," as he told parliament last week. "I believe other countries should not meddle in visits I make out of my genuine feelings," he said.

Yasukuni's Shinto priests also rejected suggestions from some politicians that the 14 worst, or Class A, war criminals, such as Gen. Hideki Tojo, no longer be honored at the shrine.

"This is a matter of religious faith," the priests said in a statement Sunday. "Their separate enshrinement will never happen."

While the uproar over Yasukuni centers on its enshrinement of the war criminals, its take on Japanese history also provides ammunition to critics who argue that it is an inappropriate place for Japan's leaders to visit.

The shrine includes a museum that presents Japan's history since the 19th century as a noble struggle to free the nation and the rest of Asia from the grip of Western colonialism.

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