Koizumi Need Not Think Twice About Yasukuni Visit

by on 2001年7月29日

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said he will pay his respects at Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II.

Considering his strong-willed behavior, Koizumi is certain to make the visit.

The reason he wishes to make the visit is that, he says, he simply wishes to pay tribute to the souls of the war dead.

He is right in doing so. I do not think he needs to go to the trouble of discussing such trivial matters as whether the premier’s visit to the shrine should be done in an official or private capacity.

The issue involving the Japanese prime minister visiting Yasukuni, however, has since the 1980s been a subject of controversy in Japan and abroad.

It would be useful, therefore, to review how this issue has evolved.

In October 1945, the year the war ended, then Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara visited Yasukuni Shrine to mourn for those servicemen who had died during the war.

The General Headquarters of the Allied Occupation Forces subsequently placed a ban on government involvement in any shrine-sponsored memorial services for the war dead.

Shortly after the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed in 1951, but before it was ratified, then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida paid an official visit to the shrine, asking the occupation forces to issue permission for Japanese government leaders to pay their respects at the shrine’s services for the war dead.

Yoshida was moved by his visit to the shrine as were the bereaved families of the war dead, according to news reports written at the time.

Populist, claptrap approach

Yoshida subsequently paid his respects at the shrine three more times in his official capacity of prime minister, while his successors, Nobusuke Kishi, Hayato Ikeda, Eisaku Sato and Kakuei Tanaka visited the shrine–two times, five times, 11 times and five times, respectively–in their official capacities of prime minister.

It was during the 1974-1976 administration of Prime Minister Takeo Miki that the issue came up concerning the distinction between Cabinet members visiting the shrine in an official capacity and doing so in a private capacity.

Miki was unique among past Japanese prime ministers in that he was a peculiarly populism-oriented pacifist, employing such self-restraining, claptrap defense policies as setting the nation’s maximum permissible defense budget at 1 percent of the gross national product and instituting the 1976 National Defense Program Outline. Several administrations following the Miki Cabinet had to struggle to correct its deviations in the nation’s security policy.

While in office, Miki made a visit to Yasukuni Shrine, but said he did so “in a private capacity.”

As was the case with his defense policy, no surrounding circumstances necessitated him to use the term “in a private capacity” regarding his visit to the shrine. What might have had something to do with the remark was that Justice Minister Osamu Inaba of the Miki Cabinet had used the term “in a private capacity” in reference to his participation in a meeting of the People’s Congress for Establishing an Independent Constitution for Japan.

Miki’s successor, Takeo Fukuda, followed the precedent set by Miki, making it customary for the prime ministers of several subsequent administrations to visit the shrine as private citizens.

How, then, did the souls of the wartime leaders who received death sentences in the Tokyo War Tribunal come to be enshrined together with the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine?

Relevant to this is the fact that immediately after the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in 1952, a movement calling for the release of Japanese who were still in prison after being convicted of war crimes arose. All such people were released by 1958 with the approval of the countries concerned, in line with the provisions of the Peace Treaty.

Almost at the same time as the release movement, there arose a national movement, demanding that the government grant surviviors’ pensions to the bereaved families of those who were either sentenced to death or died in prison under the rulings of the Tokyo War Tribunal.

Under law, government pensions were not paid to the relatives of those who were subject to imprisonment for three years or more.

The pension reform meant that the people who were sentenced to death or died in prison after being found guilty at the war tribunal should not be regarded as criminals in the eyes of domestic laws, but instead should be viewed as victims of the war.

A law to provide the bereaved families of such people with pensions was unanimously enacted by the Diet, with all parties, including both the left and right wings of the Japan Socialist Party, throwing their support behind the plan for pension reform.

In those days, no Japanese doubted the wisdom of recognizing them as war victims, not criminals under Japanese law.

The Repatriates Relief Bureau was then in charge of deciding on criteria with which to choose those who should be enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine together with the war dead.

In making the decision, the bureau made reference to lists of pension beneficiaries created under the Law for the Relief of the War Bereaved and the Public Officials Pensions Law.

The enshrining at Yasukuni Shrine of the souls of people found guilty by the Tokyo War Tribunal subsequently began in 1959. The task was finished in 1978, when the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals were enshrined.

In those days, there were no protests at all from China or any other countries over the enshrining of the Class-A war criminals. The visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira in 1979, as well as ones by Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki in 1980 and 1981 did not cause any problems.

In 1982, the issue of school history textbooks came to the fore, leading to a masochistic view of Japan’s history that has been haunting the nation for the past two decades.

Although China began to intensify its protests against Japan for its wartime past, mainly because of the school history textbook issue, the Chinese made no particular mention over the enshrining of the Class-A war criminals at the shrine. So, no problem arose when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited the shrine in 1983 and 1984.

Outcries date back to 1985

That is to say, the present Yasukuni problem dates back only 16 years, to 1985.

Nakasone, as part of his project to “overhaul postwar systems of Japan,” set up an advisory council concerning matters relating to Yasukuni Shrine in 1984. Based on recommendations by the advisory council, the prime minister paid a visit to the shrine in his official capacity on Aug. 15, 1985.

Before Nakasone’s official visit to Yasukuni Shrine, The Asahi Shimbun carried an article on Aug. 7, saying that China was “looking hard at Japan’s behavior” regarding the Yasukuni problem.

China’s People’s Daily, for its part, reported on Aug. 11 about movements within Japan that was critical of the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni.

The movements against the premier’s visit to the shrine were thus launched in Japan and China, with each quoting what allegedly happened in the other country.

The issue took on a new development on Aug. 14, when a Chinese government spokesman came out for the first time with a formal objection from that country, saying Nakasone’s visit to the shrine would “hurt the feelings of Japan’s Asian neighbors.”

Meanwhile, a mission from the JSP made a visit to Beijing from Aug. 27 to 30, lashing out at Prime Minister Nakasone–in chorus with the Chinese leaders–over his visit to the shrine.

The result was that outcries over the Yasukuni issue gathered momentum to the extent that Nakasone found it impossible to make any further visits to the shrine before stepping down in 1987.

Ever since that time, China, having presumably been pleased with its success, has been interfering in the Yasukuni issue as part of the Chinese foreign policy.

Leftists in tandem with China

Subsequently, under the influence of the Chinese government-sponsored “patriotic movement” around 1995, this issue was soon dubbed as a “feeling of the entire Chinese nation.”

Since then, China, in tandem with leftist forces in Japan, has persisted in maintaining an anti-Yasukuni stance up to the present day.

Judging from the preceding evidence, it is obvious that the Yasukuni problem was never a judicial issue, but rather an extremely peculiar political issue.

It should be noted that the issue’s origin was an adverse reaction on the part of antiestablishment elements to Nakasone’s initiative to overhaul Japanese postwar systems, which ran counter to a new anti-establishment movement that followed the 1982 flareup over history textbooks.

Since then, the issue of prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni has followed the same pattern in which Japanese antiestablishment forces have deliberately been maneuvering to ferment interference from abroad and respond it from within Japan.

It seems, at present, that antiestablishment forces have focussed all their energies on objecting to the prime minister’s official visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

Noteworthy in this connection, however, is the fact that nobody–for a period of a quarter of a century up until the birth of the Miki Cabinet in the mid-1970s–raised any concern regarding the constitutionality of a prime minister visiting the shrine in his official capacity.

Recently antiestablishment forces have been explaining, as an afterthought, that the reason why China did not protest against the enshrinement of the war criminals at Yasukuni for the six-year period before Nakasone’s visit in 1985 is because the visits by the prime ministers involved during that period had been made in their “private capacity.”

Such an argument, however, is quibbling over the past.

Fundamentally, the distinction between private and official visits to Yasukuni was a frivolous idea that Miki happened to hit upon. There currently is no problem with the issue either from the standpoint of common sense or in the eyes of law.

The only significant issue is whether prime ministerial visits to the shrine infringe Article 20 of the Constitution, which prohibits religious organizations from receiving special privileges from the government.

In 1977, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in a case involving the municipal government of Tsu, which permitted a Shinto-style ground-breaking ceremony before beginning construction work on a gymnasium.

In the ruling, the top court clearly stated that the municipal government’s official participation in the ceremony should be considered constitutional. The court said the ceremony, irrespective of whether it was in the Shinto style or not, was well within the bounds of widely accepted social customs, and the government’s expenses for the ceremony could not be deemed as financial assistance to Shinto as a religious organization.

The Supreme Court’s verdict is in line with common sense.

The memorial services for victims of the World War II Tokyo air raids in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, for that matter, have been observed in a Buddhist style.

Another example is the inaugural ceremony of the president of the United States, the country that drew up the current Constitution of Japan, in which a newly elected president takes the oath of office by placing his hand on the Christian Bible.

Both the memorial services in Sumida Ward and the U.S. presidential oath are simply in line with customary social practices, which can never be considered as threats to the constitutional framework for the freedom of religion.

When Nakasone visited the shrine in 1985 as prime minister, he refrained from following the Shinto style of worship–two bows and one handclap before another bow–making a single bow instead, while making a cash offering to the shrine not to Shinto deities, but to be used for a floral offering.

Such contrived gestures, however, were intended to soothe those who opposed the visit, and were not linked to the issue of whether shrine visits were unconstitutional.

Be cool-headed, consistent

Once people tire of arguing whether it is unconstitutional for a prime minister to visit Yasukuni in his official capacity, it then becomes obvious that the issue of enshrining Class-A war criminals together with the war dead has been made the point of contention–though it had long been left unargued by anybody, including China–through maneuvering by antiestablishment forces in this country.

Although it seems that Koizumi’s visit to the shrine on this year’s anniversary of the war’s end will be the target of the same joint maneuvers by Japanese antiestablishment forces and China as those witnessed in 1985, the situation today has changed considerably.

First, we have learned lessons concerning China’s diplomatic behavior in these days.

Take, for example, such incidents as the recent collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane with a Chinese fighter, the visit to Japan and the United States by former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui and President Chen Sui-bian’s acquisition of a visa to visit the United States.

In each of these incidents, the stern and menacing warnings China initially made toward the parties concerned were considerably different from the measures the Chinese actually took in the end.

It now has become evident that a demand by the Chinese, however intimidating it may appear at first glance, can be passed without much harm if we deal with it cool-headedly in a consistent manner.

On top of this, the public opinion of Japan, which used to be the root cause of the Yasukuni problem, has undoubtedly undergone a major shift ever since Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Japan three years ago.

This change was vividly demonstrated by the cool responses the Japanese public made to protests from Korea and China over the recent history textbook issue.

It also can be presumed that Prime Minister Koizumi is a man who is unperturbed by trifles.

Nakasone collided head-on with antiestablishment forces, openly showing his zeal to overhaul postwar Japan systems.

Unlike Nakasone, however, Koizumi will simply visit Yasukuni Shrine without any political slogan.

If Koizumi’s own way of coping with the Yasukuni issue ends in overhauling the nation’s systemic inertia that has existed since the war’s end, historians in the future will surely rate it as one of the remarkable achievements of the Koizumi Cabinet.