Tokyo Notes

The Yasukuni Gap

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Tokyo Notes

The Yasukuni Gap

Shrine controversy reveals a greater divide between Japan’s two major parties.

In Japan, August’s sweltering heat and war anniversaries often seem to rouse an apathetic electorate disillusioned with the political establishment.

While many voters see only paper-thin differences between the policies of the two major parties, Sunday saw leading figures of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party firmly pin their colours to the mast.

On the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, Prime Minister Naoto Kan commemorated the war dead at a ceremony at the Nippon Budokan hall in central Tokyo. Before the Emperor and an audience of about 6,000, he offered his condolences to victims of the Imperial Japanese Army and vowed never to lead Japan into war again.

Echoing Kan’s dovish approach, the entire Cabinet stayed away from the Yasukuni shrine (a Shinto house of worship at which about 2.5 million war dead are enshrined, including 14 Class A war criminals) on this day for the first time since the 1980s.

During his premiership, former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dogmatically paid reverence at the shrine every Aug. 15, much to the chagrin of wartime adversaries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea. His final visit in an official capacity (although he said he went to pay his personal respects) was in 2006—the last by an incumbent prime minister.

And on Sunday, LDP top-brass again took the opportunity of the commemorations to brandish their hawkish stripes, perhaps hinting at a more belligerent diplomatic approach should the party reclaim control of the lower house.

LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the party’s rising star, Koizumi’s son Shinjiro, were among a group of about 40 legislators who reportedly paid homage there Sunday. Most of them were members of a Yasukuni-visiting Diet club, a group predominantly consisting of LDP members, but also containing DPJ lawmakers, including party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa (whose attendance was not reported).

While Kan apparently instructed his ministers not to visit Yasukuni, what are the implications of the Cabinet’s nonattendance at the controversial shrine?

Having also apologized last week to South Korea, Kan seems to be holding out an olive branch to Japan’s Asian neighbours. By shunning the shrine, he is likely to win plaudits in Asian capitals and perhaps help move talks forward over a potential trilateral free-trade agreement between Japan, China and South Korea.

But if the LDP win the next lower house election (due to be held in the next three years) and Tanigaki, or whoever is at the helm, visits the shrine, will we see Japanese flags being burned on the streets of Seoul and other Asian cities? Such an antagonistic approach to the Yasukuni issue could well unravel the progress made by Kan and his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama to ease tensions in East Asia.

A recent survey conducted by a Chinese state-run newspaper and Japanese think tank Genron NPO illustrated the ongoing tensions. According to the results of the poll released Saturday, 72 percent of Japanese and 56 percent of Chinese people have a negative impression of each other’s country. The Chinese reportedly are unhappy that Japanese people ‘do not properly recognize their wartime aggression.’

Issues related to the war are not going to suddenly fall off the diplomatic agenda. Indeed, Kan is mulling the idea of embedding into law Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of not possessing or manufacturing nuclear weapons or bringing them into Japanese territory. Add this to the merry-go-round of pundits discussing whether Japan should revise its pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution, and the public has strong reasons to take note of developments in the Diet on these core issues of national identity.

With the two main parties having shown which side their bread is buttered on the Yasukuni issue, voters can now perhaps begin to tell them more clearly apart—at least on this issue.