Yasukuni flak underscores power struggle
By Richard Halloran
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his long-speculated-upon visit last week to the Yasukuni Shrine that memorializes his nation's war dead but stirred surprisingly mixed reactions among the Chinese, South Koreans and North Koreans, the usual critics.
The prime minister, who had made several visits previously to the shrine in Tokyo, put a bit more spin into this journey by going on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender that ended World War II in 1945. Why going on the day that marked the most devastating defeat in Japan's history should stir emotions elsewhere was unexplained.
The Chinese, as expected, were the most vigorous in protesting because, as the official Xinhua news agency asserted, China had been "the biggest victim" of Japanese aggression. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing summoned Japanese Ambassador Yuji Miyamoto to express China's "strong indignation" at Koizumi's action.
In South Korea, President Roh Moo Hyun, who has said he would not meet with Koizumi so long as his visits to Yasukuni continued, seemed mute on this particular visit. The official North Korean Central News Agency continued to revile Japan for what Pyong-yang calls a return to militarism but ignored the Yasukuni visit, at least on the day it took place.
The varying degrees of disruption over Yasukuni — where 14 prominent war criminals are enshrined, along with the spirits of the 2.5 million soldiers, sailors and airmen who have died since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended Japan's isolation — tended to mask a fundamental competition for power in East Asia.
China and Japan are at once emerging as prime regional powers. Driven by a surging economy, China seeks the political and military power to demand that major decisions in East Asia be approved by Beijing before being implemented.
Japan has begun to shed the passive and pacifist cocoon in which it wrapped itself after the physical and emotional destruction of World War II. As it seeks to become what some Japanese call "a normal nation," Japan has started to assert itself in the international arena.
In this billowing competition, the Chinese have been using the Yasukuni issue as a weapon to strike Japan. In response, many Japanese have accused China of trying to "bully" Japan. That backlash has only intensified the rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing.
The two Koreas, meantime, have been thrashing around. The South Korean government of Roh has been trying to entice the North Korean regime of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il into a process that would lead to reconciliation. The North Koreans have responded by firing missiles and developing nuclear arms. Consequently, the Koreans appear to have taken themselves out of the game.
After praying for the repose of the spirits of the war dead, Koizumi went to the Budokan, or Hall of Martial Arts, to speak at the annual commemoration of World War II. There, Emperor Akihito, the prime minister and other dignitaries once again apologized for the misery Japan caused from 1931 to 1945.
The emperor, son of Emperor Hirohito, who reigned over Japan during that period, said: "I renew my deep sorrow, considering the number of bereaved families who lost their invaluable ones during the war." The Chinese and Koreans have been leaders in asserting that Japanese have not taken responsibility for their actions during the militaristic era.
"Reviewing history," the emperor said, "I sincerely hope that the horror of war will not be repeated. I heartily express condolences to those who lost their lives in the battlefield, and I pray for peace of the world and further development of the country."
The prime minister acknowledged: "Our country caused huge damage and suffering to a number of countries, particularly people in Asia." He continued: "On behalf of the Japanese people, I sincerely express condolences to the victims with our deep remorse."
Moreover, he said before 7,000 people, "We are responsible for looking back at the past humbly and handing down the lessons of the terrible war to the next generations without forgetting."
Later, Koizumi defended his prayers at the Yasukuni Shrine. "I made the visit to show respect and appreciation to those who offered their lives for the sake of the country and to their families." He repeated his contention that his visits were intended to honor all of Japan's war dead, not singling out anyone.
"They already took responsibility by receiving the death penalty," he said. "I do not pay the visits to a certain group of people but to all the war dead."
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.