Bad memory in Japan
October 23, 2005
IT IS not always fair, but the actions of democratic leaders are often taken as a reflection of the people they represent. This is the case each time Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits the Yasukuni Shrine to Japanese war dead, as he did for the fifth year last week, angering Japan's Asian neighbors and shaming those Japanese who are willing to acknowledge the World War II crimes of the Japanese empire.
In previous visits, he had worn either morning dress or traditional Japanese formal attire. This time, to imply he was honoring the spirits of the war dead as a private citizen and not in his official role as head of government, Koizumi arrived in a simple gray suit. In those earlier visits, he signed the visitors' book "Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi," but this time he declined even to sign the book. On Monday he also broke from his past practice by not observing the strict Shinto style of worship and by not paying for wreath-laying and sacred Shinto tree branches.
These nuanced signals may have meant something to Japanese who do not want Koizumi to kowtow to right-wing nationalists in his own Liberal Democratic Party, but outside Japan, Koizumi's refinements of style were meaningless. Particularly since top leaders in South Korea and China had repeatedly asked Koizumi to cease paying tribute to what they regard as a blatant symbol of Japanese militarism, pretending it was a private visit free of any political significance seemed only to exacerbate the offense to Japan's neighbors.
China's ambassador to Japan said, "Koizumi must shoulder the historical responsibility for damaging Sino-Japanese relations" and called the visit to the shrine a "serious provocation." South Korea's foreign minister said, "We strongly protest the visit to Yasukuni Shrine despite our request" and called Koizumi's visits to the shrine "the biggest stumbling block to South Korea-Japan relations."
With a summit meeting coming up in November of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the first East Asia Summit scheduled in December, and with grave issues such as avian flu, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and conflicts over energy resources requiring regional cooperation, Koizumi's obtuse refusal to respect the feelings of other Asians is not merely inopportune; it paints the Japanese people, however unfairly, as unwilling to accept the truth of their neighbors' historical experience.