Between the Shrine and a Hard Place

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Junichiro Koizumi was dressed to the nines for his last visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, because if you're going to be the center of international controversy, you might as well look good. Wearing a formal tuxedo jacket with coattails, the Japanese Prime Minister arrived at Yasukuni, where WWII-era war criminals are enshrined along with 2.5 million Japanese war dead, at 7:40 on Tuesday morning — 61 years after Japan surrendered to end World War II. He followed a white-robed Shinto priest into the shrine's inner hall, worshipped briefly and departed, the entire 10-minute visit carried live by Japanese TV. Behind him Koizumi left white chrysanthemum flowers, a donor plate that identified him as "Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi" — and five years of steadily worsening relations with neighbors China and South Korea, which view Yasukuni as a celebration of Japanese militarism.

China and South Korea reacted angrily to his visit, the sixth during Koizumi's time as Prime Minister, but the reality is that both countries have long since written off Koizumi, who leaves office in a month. Solving the intractable question of Yasukuni — and possibly ending Japan's virtual diplomatic isolation in Asia — will fall to Koizumi's likely successor, the hawkish Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. Both China and South Korea have signaled their willingness to give Abe a chance once he takes power, to allow him to begin to repair the immense damage that Koizumi has done to Japan's Asian relations. But with national pride is surging in Japan — on Wednesday the government reacted furiously after a Russian patrol boat opened fire on a Japanese fishing boat sailing in disputed waters, killing a fisherman — Abe would need to show real statesmanship. "It would take a Prime Minister who has a rational view of the situation, who says, 'This is bad for Japan, and I won't go,'" says Robert Dujarric, a Tokyo-based analyst and senior associate at the National Institute for Public Policy in Fairfax, Virginia. "I don't know if that's Abe."

Yasukuni is a losing diplomatic issue for Japan, but there's always been support at home, especially among older Japanese who feel they deserve a place where they can pay respect to their millions of war dead without guilt. Although he had never visitied the shrine before he ran for Prime Minister in 2001, Koizumi made an election promise to pay his respects at Yasukuni if he won. That pledge won him key support from conservatives, and in the following years Koizumi deftly used Yasukuni to score political points at home. The louder China and South Korea would complain, the stronger Koizumi looked for refusing to back down. After his visit Tuesday, he was even more pugnacious than usual, calling international criticism of his decision "immature" and saying, "Even if President Bush advised me not to go I would still go — although President Bush wouldn't say something so childish."

But Yasukuni left Koizumi in a political situation that Bush might recognize — what succeeds in domestic politics is wrecking the country's reputation abroad. And that leaves Abe in something of a bind. (Abe is a virtual lock to win next month's elections to lead Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, which would automatically make him Prime Minister.) If Abe visits Yasukuni after becoming Prime Minister, he could destroy Japan's best chance in years to repair relations with China and South Korea. If he decides not to go, he could be seen as kowtowing to Chinese wishes at a time when Japan is increasingly worried about the rise of its giant next-door neighbor.

A blue-blooded conservative who has questioned the validity of the Tokyo War Crimes trials, Abe has visited Yasukuni repeatedly in the past, most recently this April, according to Japanese news reports. But unlike Koizumi, he has steadfastly refused to say whether he will go if he is elected Prime Minister. "[Abe] has made it clear that he doesn't want to make Yasukuni a campaign issue," says a Tokyo-based academic. "Koizumi is responsible for politicizing Yasukuni, and Abe is determined not to follow."

One of Abe's main opponents, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, has come out against the Yasukuni visits, while another, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, wants to sidestep the issue by transforming the shrine into a state-sponsored memorial, instead of a religious one. But Tanigaki and Aso are only polling in the single digits, and the LDP stalwarts who will be voting in the party election tend to be conservative. Abe will have to decide eventually. Many observers assume that his past record means he will make the trip as Prime Minister at some point. But with Abe's proven conservative bona-fides, he might be able pass on Yasukuni without paying a serious political price at home -- if he thinks salvaging Japan's Asian relations is worth the risk. "It could be Nixon goes to China," says Dujarric.

Japan is virtually split over the issue, although it is slowly turning against the shrine visits. That change is in part due to revelations published last month that Emperor Hirohito apparently stopped visiting Yasukuni because 14 Class A war criminals, including WWII-era leader Hideki Tojo, were secretly enshrined there in 1978. There's also evidence that Japan's conservatives may finally be coming to grips with the truth of WWII. This week the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest paper and a traditionally conservative voice, published the conclusion of a yearlong examination of Japan's responsibility for the war. Rejecting the usual nationalist position that Japan was tricked into war by the U.S., the paper concludes that the country was instead misled by reckless military officers like Tojo -- a verdict surprisingly similar to the one reached at the Tokyo War Crimes trials, which many conservatives had long insisted was biased. "Japan," the editors of the Yomiuri write, "in a sense drove itself over a precipice." With fresh leadership on the horizon, Japan has a chance to reexamine Yasukuni and pull back from another precipice.