Unwelcome Visits

It's that time of the year again. "It is a matter of individual freedom as to how one offers condolences to those who died at war," wrote Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in an e-mail to his supporters last week, thus fueling speculation he may be preparing for yet another of his controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine--the Tokyo war memorial that honors the souls of a century's worth of Japanese war dead. Some believe that he might even make the trip on August 15, the day that marked the end of World War II 61 years ago. That would undoubtedly infuriate foreign onlookers yet again, especially in China and Korea where Yasukuni is perceived as a symbol of unrepentant militarism because the souls of a group of high-ranking war criminals are enshrined there.

Koizumi's shrine visits have long provoked controversy and debate within Japan, too--and for the first time opponents may be poised to win the highly charged argument. For one thing, Koizumi himself will step off the political stage next month, when he resigns from his post as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. That will open the way for his successor to assume the job of prime minister. At the moment the likeliest candidate appears to be Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a fellow conservative who nevertheless hinted recently that he probably wouldn't visit the shrine should he become prime minister.

Opposition to such trips has been building for years. Prominent Japanese businessmen, led by Keidanren, the country's most influential industrial lobbying group, have long been agitating for a halt to the ritual, which has sparked serious political tension between China and Japan even as trade between the two countries reaches record levels. Earlier this year the publisher of Japan's most influential newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, shocked his conservative clientele by sharply criticizing Koizumi's position on Yasukuni. Though many members of the ruling party--including younger ones--support the shrine visits, five ex-prime ministers stunned the country by urging Koizumi to reconsider. Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, the first LDP member to declare his candidacy in the party's leadership race, is an outspoken opponent. "We have to make a decision that suits our national interest," Tanigaki told NEWSWEEK. "I think it's quite abnormal for our country not to be able to have a summit with neighbors like China and South Korea." In recent polls, 60 percent of those surveyed say that they're opposed to the next prime minister's visiting the shrine.

The latest plot twist may well increase that number dramatically. Last month, Japan's political establishment was shocked by the publication of an 18-year-old memo that purports to recount the true feelings of Hirohito, who was then emperor, on the matter. In 1978, Yasukuni officials decided to enshrine 14 Class A war criminals at the memorial--and after that move Hirohito never visited the shrine again. (The present emperor, his son, has also demurred.) Analysts have long speculated that the emperor's decision might have had something to do with the war criminals--and this newly discovered memo, written by an official of the imperial court, appears to deliver the proof. The memo describes the emperor as criticizing the shrine's head, the man responsible for the decision to enshrine the war criminals: "That's why I have not visited the shrine since. This is my heart," the document quotes the emperor as saying.

Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, believes that the conservative camp is poised to split over Yasukuni. He notes many relatives of the war dead enshrined at Yasukuni view the prime minister's visits as merely a "milestone" on the path toward the ultimate goal: the honor of a visit by the emperor. Some relatives apparently believe that the only way for that to happen is by "de-enshrining" the souls of the war criminals altogether. In a sign of the confusion among conservatives, last week the Association of War-Bereaved Families, the powerful lobbying group behind the shrine, voted to postpone all discussion of the issue until after the LDP chooses its new leader next month.

Some members of the political establishment have proposed that the new prime minister bestow his favors on an alternate war memorial without the political baggage of Yasukuni. The problem, though, is that none of Tokyo's other cemeteries for the war dead have quite the religious cachet of Yasukuni, which was established in 1869 precisely for the purpose of honoring Japanese soldiery. But Kazuhiko Togo, until recently a diplomat and the grandson of one of the war criminals venerated at the shrine, recently came up with a classically Japanese approach for getting around the problem: act like it isn't there. He proposed that the new leader of the LDP declare a temporary "moratorium" on visits to the shrine until society can arrive at a consensus on how to properly honor those who died for their country. When that consensus might occur would be "hard to predict," Togo wrote, adding: "It might come in the foreseeable future, or it might not come for many years." Fudging the issue would, he noted, give Japan "breathing space" to renew its relations with its neighbors.

It's a pretty good idea. Behind the scenes, Japanese diplomats and business leaders have been working assiduously to patch up relations with their Chinese and Korean counterparts. The key will be to persuade Abe--or whoever ultimately wins the race to succeed Koizumi--to go along with the moratorium. Says Senior Vice Minister of Justice Taro Kono, another potential contender for the top LDP job, who has also declared against the visits: "I want to talk about other issues, but all the media ask about is Yasukuni," he told NEWSWEEK. "So I'm really getting tired of it." So are many Japanese, and that issue fatigue seems to be aiding the cause of those who want the Yasukuni visits to end.