Korea, China Angry with Japan PM's Shrine Visit

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Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits the Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of World War II's end. The shrine honors many who participated in the war, including a number of convicted war criminals. Koizumi's visits to the shrine have been greeted by protests from Korea and China, countries invaded by Japan.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Japan's prime minister has outraged his Asian neighbors by visiting a controversial war shrine in Tokyo. The visit came on the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender, and its prompted angry reaction from the region.

From Shanghai, NPR's Louisa Lim has this report.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

LOUISA LIM reporting:

The visit was aired live on Japanese television. Viewers could see Junichiro Koizumi dressed in a mourning suit, bowing before entering the inner shrine.

Last year he wore less formal clothing and stayed away from the innermost shrine to avoid causing offense to Japan's neighbors.

Fourteen convicted Class A war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni, but the Japanese Prime Minister denied he was glorifying militarism.

Prime Minister JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Japan): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: I am not going there for the Class A war criminals, he said. I'm going to mourn the many who made sacrifices. He then brushed aside Chinese and South Korean criticism of the shrine visits as immature. There've been howls of diplomatic protest from South Korea and China.

Pat Cho Hi(ph), from Seoul National University, explains why.

Mr. PAT CHO HI (Seoul National University): Japan is sending a mixed signal to Asians, apologizing the war and the colonial experience, but at the same time making provocative remarks about the colonial rule (unintelligible), or even paying visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

(Soundbite of Japanese television broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LIM: In a televised statement, China accused Koizumi of wrecking ties between the two countries. South Korea has also expressed its displeasure. Both countries have been refusing to hold bilateral summits with Japan. Ties are at their lowest point in decades. Any further damage to relations is likely to follow the emerging trend: cold politics, hot economics.

Sukon Oh(ph), a Korean professor at Shanghai's Tunghua(ph) University, explains how that works.

Professor SUKON OH (Tunghua University, Shanghai): The influence will be limited only in the areas politic runs. Korean government and China's government, they don't want any harm through effect to the economic relations or any other relations with Japan.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

LIM: Last year, China saw a surge in anti-Japanese nationalism, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets. Today's pilgrimage on this most emotionally charged of days is Koizumi's parting shot. He's due to step down as prime minister next month.

Goi Dang Ping(ph), from Fudan University's Japan Research Center, says this won't necessarily solve the problems.

Mr. GOI DANG PING (Fudan University Japan Research Center): (Through translator) Although Koizumi won't still be in power, he's setting an example for his successor. In the future, I think there'll be more animosity and friction between China and Japan because of deep-seated resentment and practical conflicts of interest.

LIM: The visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are divisive not just in Asia, but in Japan itself, where they're opposed by almost half the population. The issue is becoming a key one in the race for Koizumi's successor.

No matter who takes on the mantle, they'll have a hard time satisfying both sides of domestic public opinion, let alone repairing the international damage done by these visits.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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Yasukuni Shrine: War Memorial, Political Flashpoint

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2006. i

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2006. Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2006.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2006.

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

If you were looking for a tranquil spot in the hustle and bustle of central Tokyo, you could do no better than this place: a beautiful wooden shrine; a small carp-filled pond with water cascading down a rock formation; a stooped gardener meticulously snipping the grass with scissors; benches on which to enjoy the shade of the willows, cherries and maples that surround the pond.

This remarkable place is called Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial that honors Japan's war dead from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to World War II.

As a Japan Society Media Fellow in the summer of 2005, I went to Tokyo to explore the roots of increased tensions between China and Japan, to try and understand why political and diplomatic relations had reached an all-time low. This quiet little nook in Tokyo represented the epicenter of that tension.

Today, a year later, an early-morning visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has once again raised the ire of China and South Korea, powers who suffered during Japan's military expansionism in the first half of the 20th century.

Some two and a half million spirits are enshrined at Yasukuni, including 14 Class-A war criminals found guilty in the Tokyo Trials after World War II. And it is the enshrinement of those 14 spirits (whose names were added to the shrine in the 1970s) that has roiled Japan's relations with its neighbors. For them, Yasukuni is the symbol of Japan's imperial past and a visit to the shrine by a Japanese leader is seen as a tacit endorsement of Japan's wartime behavior when millions of Chinese, Koreans and other Southeast Asians were killed and enslaved by the Japanese.

For many of the shrine's supporters, in fact, a revision of Japan's wartime past is long overdue. The Tokyo trials, they feel, were the victors' justice, the negative assessment of the war, an imposition of the American occupiers. To those who see the war as one of self-defense, the war criminals were, in fact, not guilty.

In visiting the shrine on Tuesday, Koizumi said: "I am not going there for the Class-A war criminals. I am going there to mourn the many who made sacrifices."

Koizumi has made the visit every year since becoming prime minister. But until this year he has always avoided coming on Aug. 15, the date that marks Japan's surrender, as if visiting on this day in particular would be more inappropriate than any other day.

Last summer, Koizumi stayed away from the shrine on this date, perhaps because he was just weeks away from a snap general election, which he won convincingly. But this year, he is a lame duck — he steps down as prime minister in September.

When asked about his choice to visit today, Koizumi said he is criticized whenever he goes. "If that's the case, I thought today was appropriate," he said.

Chinese and Korean officials were quick to condemn the visit. In a televised statement, China accused Koizumi of wrecking ties between the two countries. South Korea also expressed its displeasure, and both countries summoned their Japanese ambassadors to lodge protests.

While the shrine itself may be peaceful, a tour through the newly minted museum adjacent to the shrine reveals a version of the Pacific War with a very different spin from other histories of the period.

I met with a museum official, Hiotsugu Iki, who said the goal of the museum was to "present the facts of the modern history of Japan.... Unfortunately since World War II, no deep history of modern Japan has been taught in schools. This exhibit explains the international situation that led to war."

Indeed the museum's exhibits and placards present a detailed argument that Japan was forced into the war, glossing over the staggering casualties inflicted upon China and Korea in particular, and making the case that Japan was forced into bombing Pearl Harbor.

As Iki, a Shinto priest himself, put it to me then, "Our museum is different from other museums. The nature of this museum is not to teach history, but to provide footprints of the people who died in the wars. We want to provide a visible shape to the invisible spirits."

In my wide-ranging discussions with politicians, businessmen, scholars and students, all recognized the potent symbolism of the prime minister's visits to the shrine. Business leaders, enjoying excellent economic relations with China, fear continued tension over the issue will impact the economic ties eventually. Academics see it as a domestic issue with international implications. For many young people I spoke with, there was a sense of resignation that a war that ended six decades ago can still have widespread ramifications on relations with Japan's largest and most important neighbor.

As a parting shot, Koizumi's politically charged visit, far from being the insignificant action of a lame duck, sets expectations domestically for whoever succeeds him, and also ensures that a mark of commemoration by one nation will continue to be seen as an international incident by others.

Madhulika Sikka is supervising senior producer for Morning Edition.

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