War Shrine First Test for New Japanese Premier

Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese prime minister, already faces an important symbolic test: Will he visit a controversial shrine that honors the nation's war dead — including war criminals blamed for brutalizing citizens occupied by Japan in the years before and during World War II?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca. Japan has a new Prime Minister: Shinzo Abe, a nationalist. Japan's neighbors are waiting to see how he'll deal with an issue that strained Asian diplomacy - a shrine where Japan's war dead, including war criminals, are worshipped. Louisa Lim sends this report from Japan.

(Soundbite of children laughing)

LOUISA LIM: Children play among the cherry trees that line the route to the Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni means peaceful nation, and the shrine's peaceful atmosphere lies in stark contrast to the turbulent debate swirling around it sparked by repeated visits by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Inside the shrine, more than two million souls of soldiers who died serving their country are worshipped as guardians of the nation.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

LIM: Before entering the shrine, visitors purify their hands and mouths with water.

(Soundbite of hands clapping)

LIM: At the shrine they throw coins into an offering box, bow, clap twice to call the attention of the spirits, then bow again. These rituals and others carried out by Shinto priests are supposed to pacify the spirits of the war dead, keeping the nation secure from any retribution visited on the living. John Nelson, a Shinto specialist from San Francisco University, says the holding pattern created by the rituals serves to bolster a sense of national identity.

Professor JOHN NELSON (Shinto specialist, San Francisco University): It's always an ongoing process, and yet it does serve the interest of the state because these periodic rituals help to remind people about why the soldiers died.

LIM: See you at Yasukuni were the words used in parting by Japan's kamikaze pilots during World War II. Their role is glorified in the museum alongside the shrine. In written answers to questions, shrine officials said the museum's goal was to exhibit items belonging to the deceased to pass on their benevolence to the public. But its revisionist version of history portrays Japan as forced into World War II by the U.S., and it doesn't mention Japan's wartime atrocities.

For Japan's neighbors, outrage at the museum is exacerbated by the fact that 14 Class A war criminals - some of whom were executed after the war - are enshrined at Yasukuni. These war criminals are men like Shigenori Togo, the wartime foreign minister who's grandson, Kazuhiko Togo, is a former ambassador and professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Professor KAZUHIKO TOGO (Professor, Tamkang University; Former Ambassador, Taiwan): I was a grandson of Shigenori Togo. You know, I am grateful for those who have enshrined my grandfather in order to honor his work as a man of peace.

LIM: But Kazuhiko Togo wants the new prime minister to stop visiting the shrine. He'd also like the museum to be de-politicized. Some have suggested removing the war criminals from the shrine, an idea rejected outright by shrine officials. Ambassador Togo instead is urging a debate on responsibility for the war.

Prof. TOGO: If you think that certain people are responsible, then you have reason to ask them to de-enshrine. But if you consider that the state as a whole was responsible, then maybe those who are executed were executed on behalf of the nation, which gives some reason for mourning them.

LIM: But six decades on, reaching a consensus is almost impossible. So far the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, refuses to say whether he'll continue visiting the shrine. He's pledged to improve ties with China and South Korea, which are demanding an end to visits. Gerald Curtis, an expert on Japanese politics at Columbia University, says Abe's ideological convictions are likely to override his pragmatism.

Professor GERALD CURTIS (Japanese Politics Expert, Columbia University): This issue of Yasukuni continues to be very prevalent because the prime minister insists on going there. It will polarize Japanese opinion more and more, and the right will grow stronger.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Outside the shrine, an elderly man strums a traditional Japanese instrument called a shamisen. For many in his generation, the shrine offers a chance to remember fallen comrades while validating their losses. Many in Asia believe the spirits of Japan's wartime victims can only be laid to rest if the country's leaders stop paying homage to their wartime dead. Louisa Lim, NPR News.

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