In a conference room across the street from the imposing Diet building, a Tokyo history professor in a black sweater is holding forth on the role of war memorials. Listening to him is a respectful audience of several dozen politicians, who occasionally interrupt with polite questions. Among them are leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party--men with graying temples and stern black suits. It's not exactly the stuff of headlines--until you consider that the LDP elders at the meeting, including former vice president Taku Yamasaki and former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda, might be called foreign-policy rebels, plotting an insurrection against a man whose name is never mentioned in their deliberations: Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
According to LDP rules, Koizumi must step down from his party leadership post in the fall of this year--and in doing so relinquish his position as prime minister. And so the race to succeed him is on. The front runner is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 51, who boasts excellent name recognition and, as an outspoken nationalist, has plenty of street credibility. But the LDP notables in the conference room think they've found a political weapon with which to turn the leadership struggle to their advantage: Yasukuni Shrine. They're betting that a majority of LDP members are worried that good relations between Japan and its major Asian trading partners (China and South Korea) are more important than making ceremonial visits to a shrine that's deeply controversial among Japanese voters.
Since he became prime minister five years ago, Koizumi has made an annual visit to Yasukuni, the Shinto war memorial in downtown Tokyo that memorializes the souls of 2.47 million Japanese war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals executed by the victorious Allied powers after World War II. Koizumi's visits are galling to China and South Korea (both occupied by Japan during the war), and as a result, relations between those powerful neighbors and Japan have deteriorated in recent years. But far from feeling pressured by the other countries' yearly bouts of indignation, Koizumi has embraced them, deftly transforming the "Yasukuni problem" into a patriotic litmus test. "Those who criticize the visits should... clearly state whether the visits themselves are not right," Koizumi said recently, "or whether the visits are not right because China and South Korea say they are not right."
Now Koizumi and Abe's dovish rivals --are pushing back, very subtly. During a recent trip to Vietnam, Yamasaki deftly positioned himself as a Yasukuni opponent, saying: "Relations with Asian nations are at an impasse [because of Yasukuni]. This will be a very important issue in the next administration." Public opinion is divided; according to a Jan. 20 poll by the daily Mainichi Shimbun, 47 percent of those people surveyed oppose the visits, and an equal percentage favor them.
Yasuo Fukuda, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanikagi are all possible contenders for Koizumi's job. Fukuda is emerging as a pole of the anti-Yasukuni opposition. Yet another hereditary politician with impeccable LDP credentials (his father, Takeo, was prime minister in the 1970s), he's the second most popular candidate within the LDP. He hasn't said that he's campaigning for party president, but he's pretty open about opposing Yasukuni visits, which he's said have "hindered the development of Japan-China relations." Tanigaki is influential, but he's been circumspect on the shrine issue. Tokyo political analyst Takao Toshikawa says that while the dovish wing of the LDP hasn't settled on an Abe rival yet, the intraparty maneuvering has started earlier than expected. "We've suddenly got a race on our hands," he says.
Japan, humbled by its defeat and the horror of being an atomic-bomb target, has been a pacifist nation for 60 years. That is changing, to be sure, but many opinion makers remain troubled by the geopolitical price that Japan is paying for Yasukuni. Even Tsuneo Watanabe, editor in chief of the archconservative Yomiuri Shimbun, signaled a shift in his paper's position last summer, when his editorial page published a piece suggesting the adoption of an alternate war memorial as a way out of the Yasukuni dilemma.
In a more recent magazine piece, Watanabe, 79, recalled his own experiences during the war, expressed his contempt for the country's wartime leaders--and condemned Yasukuni as a bulwark of revisionism: "The Yasukuni Shrine runs a museum where they show items in order to encourage and worship militarism. It's wrong for the prime minister to visit such a place"--regardless, he emphasized, of what the Chinese or South Koreans might think. What's more, Watanabe said he'd made the same point to Abe, who recently stated that he would keep up the Yasukuni visits if he succeeds Koizumi.
Watanabe's denunciation means that five out of Japan's six major papers have declared themselves opposed to the Yasukuni visits--a powerful consensus illustrating that many Japanese still feel queasy about Koizumi's conservative foreign-policy views. Indeed, both the prime minister and Abe have been put on the defensive, chorusing that Yasukuni should not be "made an issue" in the maneuvering for LDP leadership. Good luck. Koichi Kato, a prominent LDP parliamentarian who has been pushing plans for an alternate memorial, says that "Asia policy should be included in the agenda for the [LDP] presidential race. [And] once we begin to talk about Asian policy, this inevitably includes the Yasukuni issue."
Needless to say, the Asia foreign-policy debate is a huge risk for the Abe camp. Political analysts say that many of the Japanese who voted for Koizumi in last September's electoral landslide clearly want to continue his economic reforms. But they might be happy to find a face-saving way to mend relations with China and Korea, such as centering future commemorations on a neutral venue, like Tokyo's thoroughly secular Chidorigafuchi Cemetery, or creating a new memorial site for the war dead altogether.
The Yasukuni debate really reflects the generational divide within the LDP: many of the opponents of Koizumi's shrine visits are older, more-traditional politicians with strong memories of the war. "[Koizumi's opponents] are very unhappy about carrying out generational change in the party," analyst Toshikawa notes. Those in favor, by contrast, include a disproportionate numbers of younger neoconservatives who couple their enthusiasm for Koizumi's economic and political reforms with a rejection of what they see as the pacifist platitudes of their elders. Quite a few of them are in their 30s and 40s, which suggests that debates over the Yasukuni problem could prove a far more enduring phenomenon than the contest to determine Koizumi's successor.