Saturday, May 28, 2005
Tsuguo Morita received an unexpected phone call on the night of April 15, 2001.
The man calling on the vice chairman of the Japan Association for the Bereaved Families of the War Dead turned out to be Junichiro Koizumi, who was then running for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
That fateful call was the beginning of an international row that continues to haunt Sino-Japanese relations today. Ties between the two Asian powers have recently sunk to a level Beijing describes as the lowest-ever in their history of diplomatic relations, which were normalized in 1972.
“His message was that he would certainly visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, if he is elected LDP president,” Morita recalled. Aug. 15 is the day when Japan surrendered to the Allied powers to end World War II in 1945.
Morita immediately thought Koizumi was asking the association to back him in the LDP race because of his promise to break a political taboo that many of his predecessors have respected out of fear of setting off protests in other parts of Asia.
Koizumi won the race, beating ex-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was formerly chairman of the association but did not pledge to visit the contentious Shinto shrine.
The association claims a membership of 1 million households whose kin are among Japan’s war dead, and is one of the LDP’s largest support groups.
“We’ve highly appreciated (Koizumi’s) visits to the shrine,” Morita said.
Yasukuni Shrine, located in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, honors 2.47 million Japanese who have died in wars since the late 19th century. Also enshrined are 14 wartime leaders convicted as class-A war criminals by the Allied-led war tribunal, including Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.
Visits there by Japanese government leaders have frequently been a source of diplomatic ire with Japan’s Asian neighbors — particularly China and South Korea — because of the shrine’s role as a spiritual pillar for Japan during the war.
Koizumi has visited the shrine once a year since becoming LDP president and prime minister in April 2001. Despite fierce protests from China and South Korea, he has said he intends to go this year as well and will pause only to “make an appropriate judgment” on the timing.
Sources close to Koizumi say the prime minister reckons the diplomatic row with China over the visits will calm down and eventually go away if he only gives it time.
“China will eventually admit its error,” a source quoted Koizumi as saying during a meeting with business leaders last year. Instead, the row has escalated.
Earlier this week, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi, who came to Japan on an apparent fence-mending mission, snubbed Koizumi by canceling a scheduled meeting at the last minute. Beijing later described the action as a protest over remarks about Yasukuni by Japanese leaders that “are negative for the development of better relations.”
While many LDP leaders have adopted a hardline view toward China and support Koizumi’s visits to the shrine, New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, is becoming more vocal in urging him to show restraint in view of the troubled ties.
On Thursday, New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki said the most important thing in keeping tensions with China from escalating “is for the prime minister to refrain from visiting” the shrine.
What is not clear, however, is whether Koizumi will heed such calls.
Some Foreign Ministry officials said they believe Koizumi should stop the visits to improve ties with China, which is strategically important to Japan in both economic and security terms. China has surpassed the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner.
But they also said they have almost given up on trying to change Koizumi’s mind.
“It’s a very sensitive issue. (Probably) the most sensitive issue” for foreign policy advisers to Koizumi, a senior government official assigned to the Prime Minister’s Official Residence said earlier.
The official said Foreign Ministry bureaucrats have not been been able to explain the diplomatic merits and demerits of the Yasukuni visits to Koizumi, because they believe it’s useless to try to change his mind.
“If he could change his mind, the story would be different. But he won’t,” said the official, who was a foreign policy advisor to Koizumi.
Why does he insist on visiting Yasukuni despite all the anger and the risk of damaging Japan’s diplomatic ties in the region?
Koizumi has only explained his persistence by saying “it is only natural” to pay respects to the Japanese who gave their lives for their country.
“I still don’t understand why I should not express respect and gratitude for all the war dead,” Koizumi told a May 16 House of Representatives committee session.
He also argued that other countries should not “interfere” with how Japan remembers its war dead.
But some people believe there are political reasons for the visits as well, including demonstrating that he is consistently a “stubborn maverick” who will keep his word with the Japanese war dead association.
“I think he has prioritized not changing what he has once decided, no matter what other countries may say,” said Koichi Kato, a House of Representative member once considered a key ally of Koizumi.
Kato said Koizumi is probably monitoring the reactions of the Japanese public to make a decision on the Yasukuni issue.
“Popular approval ratings (for his Cabinet) in media polls have recently risen. I think it will further harden his resolve,” Kato said.
A poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun from May 14 to 15 showed 51.4 percent of the 1,880 respondents supported the Cabinet, up 3.6 percentage points from April and the first time it has topped 50 percent in six months. The respondents accounted for 62.7 percent of 3,000 people contacted for the poll.
The same poll also showed that 48 percent of the respondents support the shrine visits, while 45 percent are opposed.
Political reasons aside, it is widely believed that Koizumi, known to be an emotional man, truly sympathizes with the Japanese soldiers who died in war during the 1930s and 1940s, in particular the young kamikaze recruited in the closing days of World War II.
Koizumi has cited “Ah Doki no Sakura,” a collection of writings left by the doomed pilots, when asked to mention a book that has impressed him most in his life.
When Koizumi visited a museum dedicated to the kamikaze in Kagoshima Prefecture in February 2001, two months before becoming prime minister, he shed tears for several minutes while viewing the exhibition, an official at the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots said.
“With his eyes closed, he started shedding big tears and couldn’t move and kept standing there,” said the museum official, who was interviewed by phone and only gave his name as Matsumoto.
Kato describes the prime minister as a politician who depends much on emotion and intuition instead of logic and reason when making decisions.
And he’s also not one to listen to the advice of others, he said.
“When we were drinking, he often said that politicians should act by intuition,” Kato said. “He said if politicians listen to the opinions or explanation of others, particularly those of bureaucrats, they will be indecisive and their (political) messages will only become weak.
“Instead, Koizumi said, you should keep saying what your intuition tells you because then your message will carry more strongly to the people.”
Kato, a former career diplomat and a China expert, warned that if Koizumi keeps visiting Yasukuni, it will only keep Japan from pursuing its strategic interests in Asia while allowing China to expand its economic presence to a dominant position in the region.
“China will form free-trade agreements with other Asian countries” while Japan will continue to be troubled with the Yasukuni problem, Kato said.
The Japan Times: May 28, 2005
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REIJI YOSHIDA – The Japan Times
Saturday, May 28, 2005