Japan’s brutal imperialist history still burns in the memories of its Asian neighbors.
On August 13 Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi worshiped at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine—what many in Asia consider the “symbolic heart of right-wing militarism” (International Herald Tribune, Aug. 14).
“The visit, in the eyes of millions living in the countries that Japan conquered in the heyday of Japanese imperialism, reflected a nationalist and rightist spirit among Japanese” (ibid.).
Though Yasukuni means “peaceful country,” the Shinto shrine is where Japanese war dead are honored—including World War ii Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six other “Class A” war criminals hanged for their atrocities.
In Japan’s postwar era, Yasukuni has been visited only once by a prime minister in official capacity: in 1985, when Nakasone
Yasuhiro worshiped there. Public protest was so strong, however, that it remained his only official visit.
Though Koizumi, in a statement about this visit, said that “Japan should never again walk on the path to war,” expressing his “deepest regret and remorse toward all the victims of war,” his controversial visit caused an outcry across Asia.
China’s Foreign Ministry said, “The Chinese government and people lodge their fierce anger and dissatisfaction.” Protesters in Hong Kong burned Japan’s wartime rising-sun flag and a photo of Koizumi. “We are expressing the strongest fury of Asians,”one protester said.
North Korea said Koizumi had “insulted Asian people,”(International Herald Tribune, Aug. 15). In South Korea, 20 men cut off the tips of their little fingers in public to protest Koizumi’s visit. The Koreans still remember the 35-year-long Japanese occupation of their peninsula, which ended at Japan’s defeat in 1945.
In Japan, however, the smooth-talking Koizumi is by far the most popular prime minister since the war ended—his approval ratings still hover at an amazing 70 percent. He has rallied renewed vigor for the Liberal Democratic Party—and for Japanese politics in general.
His opponents warn that the popularity of the charismatic and even eccentric Koizumi is a sign that Japan’s painful war history is repeating itself. They compare the new prime minister with Hitler and Mussolini. They describe his well-attended speeches as latter-day Nuremberg rallies.
Koizumi’s shrine visit has opened a wound in Japan’s relations with South Korea—one that is likely to force the United States to side with Seoul. The communist countries of north Asia (Russia, North Korea, China) will gladly exploit this tension in “an attempt to undermine Washington’s military dominance of East Asia” (www.stratfor.com, Aug. 20).
This could cause Tokyo to reassert itself as an independent and militarily strong nation, “leaving Washington with a weakened alliance structure just as hostilities intensify”(ibid.).
Watch for a rise of right-wing militarism in Japan as it becomes a stronger and more independent nation—and the U.S. fades from the picture.