Japan's bitter symbolism

Outside editorial

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's San Jose Mercury News:

To Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine may have seemed a simple thing. Leaders should honor their nations' war dead.

But to many Japanese, and to other Asian nations still bitter at Japan's brutality in the past, the symbolism of Monday's visit was far more complex. For Yasukuni Shrine does not just honor, in some general way, those who died in combat. It is a religious shrine honoring all war dead since 1868 - but it includes, by name, top leaders from World War II who did not die in battle but were hanged as war criminals, or died in prison.

To those who still feel the pain of that war, Koizumi's action seems tantamount to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder paying tribute to Adolph Hitler.

Koizumi is a first for Japan in so many ways. A colorful and charismatic leader, he uses the Internet and other media to win popular support for his ideas, breaking with predecessors who played only insider politics. He is frank about Japan's problems. All this has been refreshing. Then came the shrine controversy.

Some say the visit shows Koizumi is sympathetic to Japan's militaristic past. Others say he did it to please conservatives in his party, so he can get his reforms passed. Still others believe it was that simple matter of principle: the need to honor those who've given their lives for their country.

It could have been worse. Koizumi originally planned the visit for Wednesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. While the backlash from Monday's visit was powerful - 20 Koreans cut off their fingertips in protest - an anniversary visit would have been more provocative.

And to his credit, Koizumi used the occasion to make a strong pacifist statement: "Japan should never again walk on the path to war."

Still, it's difficult to understand why he took this on.

The symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine is no accident. The Shinto priests who oversee it deliberately added the names of war criminals to its rolls in 1978 and have refused to remove them. It is not wild paranoia to think that worshiping at the shrine is honoring these men.

Surely Koizumi could have found another way to pay tribute to the legions of Japanese soldiers who died over the centuries.

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