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Skip the shrine

October 16, 2005

THE YOUNG STUDENT AT Shanghai's Fudan University pulled no punches. "A lot of young people like me hate Japan," she said last month. The Japanese "never say they're sorry" for atrocities the military committed during World War II, including the rapes in Nanking after the invasion of China. The student said her peers' antipathy for the Japanese outstrips even the Beijing government's -- quite a statement considering the government's virulent denunciations of Tokyo in recent years.

Japan has apologized several times for its actions in World War II, but that has not been enough for Beijing. China's government-controlled media pump the party line across the country and onto the campuses, finding attentive listeners even among those whose parents were not born until after the war.

If anti-Japan rhetoric is a handy tool for Chinese officials to divert attention from their own problems -- such as pollution, corruption and the growing divide between rich and poor -- it's also fed by events such as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Koizumi has not visited the shrine this year, and he shouldn't. He would be better off spending the political capital from his landslide election win last month on pushing through his economic reforms. Another shrine visit would only antagonize not just China but South Korea, plus other Asian nations that Japan invaded more than half a century ago.

Last month, a Japanese high court ruled that Koizumi's previous visits as prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine violated the separation of church and state imposed by the constitution. Nearly 200 people had sued to stop the visits to the shrine, which honors the nation's 2.5 million war dead, including 14 men convicted as war criminals. Next to the shrine is a museum endorsing the view of a minority of Japanese that the invasions and war were reactions to the imperialism of the U.S. and its allies.

A recent poll in Japan found 51% opposed to another Koizumi visit and 44% in favor. Skipping Yasukuni would not hurt him much domestically, while a visit would cost him and the country internationally. If Japan feels a need for a memorial to the war dead, it should build one that isn't associated with Shintoism, the official religion until the end of the war.

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