Far from a refuge, the shrine has become one of the most controversial locales in Asia and in the process rekindled historic antagonisms between Japan and its neighbors throughout the region. The chief agitator is none other than Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who has made an annual pilgrimmage to the site for the past five years. Koizumi defends the visits as a chance to pray and show respect for Japan's war dead. But Koizumi's appearances at the shrine have infuriated the Chinese and South Koreans, who view it as a symbol of Japan's militarist past. "It may seem like such a trivial thing, but Yasukuni has ballooned into a larger than life issue," says Peter Beck, director of the North East Asia Project at the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "It has become the single biggest stumbling block to better relations in the region."
It also may be a problem for the U.S. diplomatic efforts to enlist its Asian allies to help curtail North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Under Koizumi who travels this week to the U.S., making stops both in Washington and at Graceland Japan has taken a more muscular role in world affairs and sent troops to Iraq. The changes have been warmly welcomed in Washington, which has long wanted Japan to shoulder more responsibility for its own defense and become a more substantial counterweight to the regional ambitions of China and North Korea. The U.S. has been alone among the other nations in the on-again, off-again six-party talks over North Korea's nukes to back Japan's demand that the negotiations also include the issue of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s "From the U.S.'s point of view, Koizumi is a dream prime minister," says Jeffrey Kingston, history professor at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. "Rarely in history have Tokyo's agenda and Washington’s agenda matched so perfectly."
But a growing number of academics and diplomats worry that increasing tensions caused by Japan's intransigence on the issue could make it more difficult for China, South Korea and Japan to focus and cooperate on North Korea's nuclear program. Some have even suggested that the U.S. attempt to mediate in some way. But the Bush administration has, so far, steered far clear of the issue and that's likely to continue. "Although Japan's inability to resolve this issue undercuts its credibility and, by extension, U.S. influence in Asia," says Patrick Cronin, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "Japan is still too useful an ally in too many other ways for the U.S. to get mixed up in it."
In Asia, however, Japan's assertiveness has raised anxieties about a resurgence of the nationalist impulses that led to the deaths of millions during World War II. Anger at Koizumi's visits to the shrine runs deep. At an APEC meeting in Busan, South Korea, last November, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun told Koizumi that his visits were "totally unacceptable" and China’s ambassador to Japan recently said that a China-Japan summit, which has not happened since 2001, would only take place once "political obstacles" had been overcome. In Japan, debate over who should succeed Koizumi has thus far been framed, almost exclusively, on the candidates’ views on Yasukuni. Shinzo Abe, 51, the charismatic front-runner, has courted conservatives by vehemently defending a prime minister's right to worship wherever he likes although he has recently become coy about whether he would go to Yasukuni if he were prime minister.
Because of its association with the wartime State Shinto religion, Yasukuni has remained an enduring symbol for die-hard nationalists since Japan's defeat in 1945. Starting in 1959, priests there have quietly enshrined more than 1,000 convicted war criminals, including hundreds of military men who personally committed atrocities, ordered them to take place, or refrained from stopping them. At the shrine's museum, memorabilia from kamikaze pilots and the Burma death railway are displayed in an unequivocally celebratory and exculpatory style. Visitors there are told, for example, that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt purposely drew Japan into war, and an exhibit on the "Nanking Incident" does not mention the tens of thousands (and perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Chinese citizens the Japanese military slaughtered in that city in 1937 and 1938 except to say that "the Chinese were soundly defeated suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace."
Many Japanese say such historical distortions at Yasukuni museum are disseminated by an ultra-conservative minority affiliated with the shrine, and that mainstream Japan has confronted its war past head on. Koizumi's Yasukuni visits are highly controversial in Japan itself, with public opinion split roughly in half. Yasuo Fukuda, a candidate to succeed Koizumi, has picked up support by publicly criticizing Koizumi's Yasukuni fetish. One of Japan's most influential business associations has called for the erection of a new, non-denominational memorial where the next prime minister can pay his respects instead. That may be the only way to prevent Asia's old wounds from opening up again.