The premier's visit to the Shinto shrine, where the memory of kamikaze and war criminals is preserved, on the day marking the end of the Second World War, drew vociferous criticisms from across Asia. China now awaits the post-Koizumi era.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) 15 August is a particularly significant date for eastern Asian nations, especially Korea, China and Japan: the first two mark their liberation from the militaristic yoke of Japan and the third remembers those who fell in the Pacific War (1941 1945). Sixty-one years ago, on 15 August, Emperor Hirohito exhorted his people to "bear the unbearable" and announced acceptance of unconditional surrender to the armies of the Allies.
This year, in Japan, commemorations on the day assumed strongly emotive overtones thanks to two contradictory events: the commemoration of the war dead in the presence of the imperial couple in Budokan Hall (martial arts palace) and the visit of Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to the controversial Shintoist shrine, Yasukuni.
At midday, after the emperor's prayer, the prime minister said: "Our country caused huge damage and suffering to a number of countries, particularly people in Asia. I sincerely express condolences to the victims with our deep remorse." And he added: "Japan will work with great commitment to contribute to establishing lasting peace in the world." These are not empty words: to a large extent, several nations of Asia, including China and South Korea, owe their prodigious economic renewal to financial and technical aid from Japan.
But the other event contradicted, at least symbolically, the message proclaimed at Budokan. Koizumi's day started very early: at 7.45am, he entered the shrine of Yasukuni, defying serious domestic and external opposition. Asian nations, especially China and Korea, consider the Shintoist shrine to be a symbol of Japan's military aggression. In the years of militarism, when trams or buses passed outside the temple, passengers would genuflect; "kamikaze", before setting out on their missions of no return, would gather in the entrance hall saying: "We will meet again here".
Many in Japan hoped the premier would avoid this visit, especially on 15 August, but few believed he would forego it. The tenacity and hard-headedness of the eccentric Koizumi are well known: it should be noted that it was these very attributes which allowed him to realize structural reforms that benefited the nation's economy and political renewal.
In 2001, during the "primary" elections for the selection of party chairman, he had promised "voters", especially the powerful organization of families of war dead, that as prime minister, he would visit the Yasukuni shrine on 15 August. Faithful to his word, he paid a visit to the shrine every year but due to pressure exerted by influential advisers he always avoided the date of 15 August. Since he will leave the party chairmanship in September, and consequently the government leadership post too, this year he decided to fulfil his promise to the letter.
To journalists who asked him why he dared to defy strong, even national, opposition, he replied with apparent candour: "Is it wrong to keep promises made?" and "my visit is a matter of the heart".
Analysts were quick to home in on the weaknesses of his reply: Koizumi, they said, was prime minister and it was as such that he visited the controversial shrine. As a result of his visits, there have been no state visits between leaders of China and Japan for five years. China has protested against the pilgrimages of the Japanese premier to Yasukuni because in 1978, the names of 14 Class A criminals were secretly inserted among the "plaques" dedicated to the war dead. These criminals were convicted by the "International Tribunal for the Far East" (known as the "Tokyo Tribunal" of responsibility for the disasters and suffering inflicted upon Asian nations. With this official visit, Japan shows it has not yet paid its moral debt towards the peoples of Asia.
Recently, the diary of one of the highest-ranking officials of the "Imperial Household Agency" was brought to light. It reveals that the previous emperor Hirohito, on his own initiative, stopped visiting Yasukuni in 1978 because the "plaques" to those responsible for the war had been inserted. The revelation could have offered the prime minister a strong motive for avoiding the visit.
His cited "reasons of the heart" hold even less water. The war victims are not only two million Japanese but also 20 million Asians. For victimized nations, the premier's visits to the temple, a symbol of militarism, are an unbearable affront. Koizumi also shows he has a short memory. In 1977, when he was a young politician, the then prime minister, Takeo Fukuda, a fervent Buddhist who was his mentor, had propagated the "heart to heart" doctrine in his Asian diplomacy: Japan, he had said, will be warmly welcomed when it takes the "heart of other nations" seriously. It was as if he had said: "Let's pay our moral debt".
Predictably, the visit of Koizumi to Yasukuni immediately drew protests from the governments of Asian nations. The spokesman of China was no less than the Foreign Affairs Minister. But while in Seoul reactions were lively and arose from the people, in Beijing they were deliberately contained. For the Japanese prime minister, this dealt a harder blow than a demagogic onslaught may have done. Ironically, Yoshibumi Wakamiya, columnist of the Asahi Shimbun wrote: "Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, should be a happy man. He has often said his spirit is invigorated when it meets opposition. So he should have felt great satisfaction after his visit to Yasukuni (because of the vociferous opposition met)." China, however, did not play the game: in fact it bypassed it. For some now, Chinese diplomacy has been looking ahead to the post-Koizumi era.
A letter by a US MP has drawn reactions in Japan and South Korea. He says: "For the generation that remembers Pearl Harbour, a visit by Koizumi to Yasukuni, after his speech to Congress, would be an affront".
He is the first monarch of Tokyo to carry out such a gesture. Premier Koizumi has earmarked "friendly relations" with all countries as a priority, neighbours included.
For all the Japanese people, the ex-prime minister "made history" with his direct style and liberalization of the economy. However, he has left behind shaky ties with China and Korea, which his successor, Shinzo Abe, is already working on.