Controversy Over Shrine Visit Ripples Across Pacific

A visit by Japan's prime minister to a national shrine is increasing tensions around the Pacific. Scholar Michael Yahuda talks with Susan Stamberg about Junichiro Koizumi's visit to a shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals.

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The dispute over that Tokyo shrine is at the center of tensions between Japan and China. It stirs powerful emotions in both countries; unresolved animosities that started well before World War II. For more, we turn to Michael Yahuda, a visiting scholar at George Washington University here in Washington.

Professor MICHAEL YAHUDA (Visiting Scholar, George Washington University): The shrine is a longstanding one, to memorialize the souls of the war-dead.

STAMBERG: And included among those souls...

Prof. YAHUDA: Yes...

STAMBERG: Japan, are members of the highest echelon of the Japanese military (unintelligible)...

Prof. YAHUDA: ...convicted war criminals. And Prime Minister Koizumi has made a special point of visiting the shrine during his premiership.

STAMBERG: Yes, but how does it become China's business, what visits the Japanese prime minister makes, internally, within his own country?

Prof. YAHUDA: Well, that is the Japanese' argument. The Chinese, on the other hand, claim that the Japanese have not really come to terms with their past. They haven't really explained to themselves, let alone to others, why and how their soldiers behaved in such abominable ways during the war with China and, as a result, the Japanese have not really come to terms with that past.

STAMBERG: What do the people of Japan feel when, their prime minister makes these visits to the shrine, and revisits, or tries to change in some way, the history of the country?

Prof. YAHUDA: It's not so much changing the history of the country, it is a problem that the Japanese have not really addressed that past. They started afresh, as it were, in 1945. They saw themselves as the victims of atomic warfare, of their country having been, more or less, laid flat by bombing, and having to start again, and they saw themselves as, really, a pacific nation.

And some of them regard the visit to the shrine, as raising problems with China and with South Korea, and they don't like that. They would like to see Japan having better relations with these two countries.

STAMBERG: Mm hmm. So, Professor, what is the cost of all of this - these tensions between Japan and China and, also, what's the impact of that on U.S. policy?

Prof. YAHUDA: The problem for China and Japan is a very big one. Because here are the two major powers of East Asia who get along, if you like, economically, and are interdependent economically, and yet they have no way of dealing with each other from a long-term strategic point of view.

And for the United States, the problem is that this threatens the nature of the American relationship with South Korea, and also with its complicated relationship with China, because the more the United States emphasizes the significance of Japan as an ally, the more this divide between Japan and its neighbors becomes a big issue. And to a certain extent, suspicion from the Chinese side, for example, moves towards America.

As far as South Korea is concerned, China seems to become more attractive and America less attractive. And so this is becoming a problem for the United States too.

STAMBERG: Michael Yahuda is professor emeritus at the London School of Economics. These days, he is visiting scholar at George Washington University here in D.C. Thank you very much.

Prof. YAHUDA: Thank you very much for having me.

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