Koizumi’s Shrine Game

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All Chinese eyes will be focused on Prime Minister Koizumi tomorrow. They’re waiting to see whether the outgoing Japanese leader would dare to commit the ultimate offense before stepping down next month: paying a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on the 61st anniversary of the end of World War II. The mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Daily, warned last Friday that Mr. Koizumi “could be forever spurned by Asian people, and be firmly nailed to the pole of historical shame” if he goes. Yet Beijing’s opposition actually suggests that Mr. Koizumi is on the right track in insisting on going ahead with his visit.

Speaking before leaving for Mongolia last week, Mr. Koizumi said “there is nothing unusual about the prime minister visiting the Yasukuni Shrine to pay tribute to the war dead and pledging not to start a war again.” Mr. Koizumi has visited the shrine annually since being elected five years ago but he has yet to do so on August 15, one of his campaign pledges. “The media criticize me if I fail to keep my campaign pledge. They also say I shouldn’t keep a pledge that they don’t support,” he told reporters.

The Yasukuni Shrine, meaning “peaceful nation” and designated by the Emperor Meiji, was built in 1869 to commemorate Japan’s war dead.Critics like to paint the Yasukuni Shrine as nothing but the graveyard of fourteen Class-A war criminals from the second World War. Nothing is further from the truth. Of the 2,466,000 souls honored there, many were killed in other wars, not just World War II.Visiting the shrine shouldn’t be seen simply as “worshipping the ghosts” of these terrible individuals, as Beijing asserts. As Mr. Koizumi told columnist Robert Novak three days after his last visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last October, “I’m not visiting the shrine to pay respects or homage to any particular individual. Rather, I go there to pay respect to millions of people who lost their lives in the war.”

According to China’s ambassador to Japan, Wang Yi, Beijing and Tokyo reached a “gentlemen’s agreement,” after Prime Minister Nakasone made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 1985, that the “face” of the Japanese government — the prime minister, chief cabinet secretary, and foreign minister — wouldn’t go to the shrine and China in return would not make an issue of visits by private citizens or rank-and-file politicians. Tokyo, however, has denied the existence of such an agreement.

Mr. Koizumi accurately summarized his critics’ contention in his recent e-mail magazine, as being that “I should stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine because China opposes such visits” and “it is better not to do things that China does not like.”This is indeed the crux of the whole controversy. China is accusing Japan of committing two “mortal sins”: not facing history and revitalizing militarism. Let’s look at some facts.

“Japan has maintained peace since the end of the War without participating in war even once, and without being involved in war either,” Mr. Koizumi has said. China, on the other hand, has fought numerous wars, directly or indirectly, in the past six decades, including the invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Korean War in the early 1950s, the war with India in 1962, the Vietnam War and the invasion of Vietnam in 1979.The People’s Liberation Army also intimidated Taiwan with missiles in 1996, prompting the dispatch of two American aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. The rapid and non-transparent expansion of the Chinese military has been a growing concern of America and others. And who’s stockpiling more and more missiles aimed at Taiwan?

How rich indeed for the Chinese Communist Party, which never faces up to the fact that more Chinese were killed under its rule than died under the Japanese occupation, to talk about honest history. Can Beijing tell us what really happened during the Anti-Rightist Movement in the late 1950s, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, to name just a few more well-known atrocities under its watch? And the huge portrait and corpse of Mao Zedong, arguably the number one murderer of the 20th century, are still being centrally displayed in Tiananmen Square. This, in fact, is the most sickening ghost worship one can find.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 65% of the Japanese don’t trust China. Two major events over the years contributed to this change of heart of the Japanese, who used to view China more favorably. First, the Tiananmen Massacre showed the true colors of Beijing in a most brutal way. Second, the incursion of Chinese submarines into Japanese waters made the Japanese aware of their vulnerability.

In the past five years, Mr. Koizumi has rejected all post-World War II Japanese leaders’ knee-jerk kowtow to China and pushed Japan further to become a “normal” nation by strengthening its alliance with America. Behind the offensives, disguised in historical grievances, China launches against Mr. Koizumi lies this true motive: to prevent Japan from becoming a political and military counterbalance by discrediting it with sensitive issues related to World War II. Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine tomorrow will be a fine way to draw to an end the brilliant and courageous leadership of a prime minister who dares to say no to China and leads Japan to become a normal nation.

Mr. Liu, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and general manager of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, is a Washington-based columnist.

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