In one of his final acts before leaving office in September, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a sixth visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals, are worshiped. Particularly significant was the date of Koizumi’s visit – Aug. 15 was the day on which Japan formally surrendered to U.S. forces in 1945.
Koizumi’s determination to visit the Shinto religious shrine on that date, despite repeated protests by China and South Korea, was designed to send a message: Japan is no longer prepared to be restrained by its defeat in World War II nor apologetic for the terrible crimes committed by Japanese imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s.
More than any of his postwar predecessors, Koizumi is responsible for reviving the country’s militarist traditions and aggressively reasserting Japan’s interests in Northeast Asia.
The Yasukuni Shrine has long been a symbol of Japanese nationalism and militarism. Its associated history museum portrays Japan’s wartime conquests as “liberating” Asia from Western powers and whitewashes Japanese military atrocities. “Japan’s dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia,” the shrine declares on its website.
Every aspect of Koizumi’s visit was contrived to blunt criticism, while encouraging right-wing nationalists. He claimed to be making the trip as an individual, yet signed the guest book as “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.” Unlike previous years, he prayed in the main building, thus more formally paying homage to the war dead.
“LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR!
The message was not lost on the hundreds of right-wing activists who gather annually at the shrine on Aug. 15. Among them was Yuko Tojo – the granddaughter of wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo – who was tried and executed as a war criminal by a U.S.-led tribunal in 1948. “I thank Prime Minister Koizumi from the bottom of my heart for today’s visit, since he put away other countries’ interference in domestic affairs,” she declared.
Others were dressed in wartime military uniforms bearing the imperial Chrysanthemum badge. They shouted “Long live the Emperor!”, waved the wartime flag and sang the national anthem as nearby sound trucks blared out military marches. Another 56 Japanese MPs visited the shrine later in the day.
The visit did not go unopposed – a reflection of the deep-seated hostility in Japan to militarism. A busload of protesters attempted to enter the shrine’s grounds but they were barred by police. A group of 300 protesters gathered in Tokyo’s Sakamotocho Park. Another 300 assembled near the shrine. Professor Koichi Yokota, a speaker at the protest, accused Koizumi of violating the constitution’s separation of the state and religion.
Koizumi’s visit provoked strong opposition in the region. A Chinese spokesperson declared that it “challenges international justice and tramples on the conscience of mankind”. South Korea said the Yasukuni visit “strained South Korea-Japan relations” and damaged cooperative ties in Northeast Asia. Taiwan called on Tokyo to “face the past squarely.” Even Russia warned that the visit and Japan’s wartime history were “extremely delicate subjects.”
While many people legitimately fear a revival of Japanese militarism, Beijing and Seoul are exploiting these sentiments to divert from social tensions at home. Last year the Chinese government encouraged anti- Japanese protests by layers of middle-class youth, leading to racist attacks on innocent Japanese visitors.
Sections of the Japanese ruling class have been pressing for a more aggressive assertion of economic and strategic interests since the early 1990s. But the country’s armed forces were constrained by the so-called pacifist clause in the post-war constitution that effectively blocked the development of an offensive military capacity and the deployment of Japanese troops overseas. The limitations became embarrassingly apparent during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War – Tokyo was unable to contribute troops to the U.S.-led force but was forced to pay a large portion of the costs.
The Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” has been a political boon to Koizumi. Following Sept. 11, Koizumi strengthened Japan’s alliance with Washington, calculating that it would enable his government to undermine the constitutional restraints on the Japanese military.
In 2001 Koizumi established a precedent by sending Japanese warships to the Indian Ocean to support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In 2003 Koizumi defied popular opposition to send troops to support the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq – the first time that Japanese soldiers have been deployed to a foreign combat zone since 1945. Following missile tests by North Korea in July, Japan, rather than the United States, took the lead in pressing for a punitive resolution in the U.N. Security Council. Inside Japan, senior government figures argued that Japan had to have offensive military capabilities for a “pre-emptive” strike against North Korea.
Encouraged by the Bush administration to take a more aggressive role in Northeast Asia, particularly against China, the Koizumi government has provoked a series of territorial disputes, not only with Beijing, but also with Russia, South Korea and Taiwan. Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine and his government’s approval of controversial history texts whitewashing Japan’s wartime role have only compounded regional tensions.
The frontrunner as the next prime minister is Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a right-wing nationalist who openly defended the shrine visit and who has been a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni shrine.
The debate over the shrine visits also reflects concerns about popular opposition. An editorial in Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 17 warned that the visit was a serious “political mistake” that deeply divided the nation. “Is he totally unaware of the growing domestic opposition to his Yasukuni visits?” the daily newspaper exclaimed.
Despite this opposition, it is likely that Abe will succeed Koizumi and continue the aggressive assertion of Japanese imperialism’s interests in the region and internationally.
Excerpted from the World Socialist Web Site, wsws.org.