Once again, protests against Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visit to the Yasukuni shrine are breaking out in China as well as South Korea. Koizumi’s insistence on paying homage to the war dead interred at Yasukuni, where convicted war criminals from World War II are among the buried, has been damaging relations with Japan’s neighbors for years. Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao continually affirms that he will not hold a summit with a Japanese prime minister who goes to Yasukuni, which most Chinese regard as a glorification of past Japanese aggression and colonialism.
Even some in Japan are becoming critical of Koizumi. While the public remains negative about Chinese outbursts against Japan, a recent survey indicates that more than 70% of Japanese view the current state of Japan-China relations as unacceptable. More people are not supporting Koizumi’s annual pilgrimage to Yasukuni, with seven former prime ministers jointly demanding that he refrain from the visits.
Yet Koizumi remains defiant. Moreover, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzu Abe, the front-runner to succeed him, has openly declared that he will continue to visit the shrine as prime minister. Foreign Minister Taro Aso, another possible successor to Koizumi, has called for the Japanese Emperor to pray at Yasukuni.
So pessimism appears to be settling in, and the deadlock over Yasukuni appears to be deepening. But the past can bring us more than just troubles of this kind. Even on the issue of Yasukuni, there are positive lessons to be learned.
Consider Yasuhiro Nakasone, Koizumi’s predecessor in the 1980’s. Both are master politicians who remained popular and served long terms in office. Both are conservative and nationalistic, advocating the revision of the constitution and an assertive political and military role for Japan abroad. Finally, both are pro-American, with Nakasone declaring Japan to be America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in East Asia and Koizumi sending troops to Iraq in support of the United States-led war effort.
But a crucial difference between Nakasone and Koizumi is often overlooked: their handling of the Yasukuni controversy and relations with China.
Nakasone broke the taboo by being the first prime minister to worship at the Yasukuni shrine in his official capacity on August 15, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II. The decision triggered a severe response from China, where students held demonstrations against his visit. Bilateral relations were frozen.
But, instead of capitalizing on domestic resentment over China’s criticisms, Nakasone decided not to visit Yasukuni again. He chose to mend relations with China by focusing on the positive aspects of bilateral ties. In 1986, Nakasone went to Beijing at the personal invitation of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and laid the cornerstone for a Sino-Japanese Youth Exchange Center, promising to forge future friendships with China.
This genuine embrace of reconciliation provided much-needed support to Chinese leaders, who were eager to control anti-Japanese sentiments. Hu praised Nakasone’s courage and warned Chinese youth publicly that if they “think merely of the well-being of their own country… they are not sober-minded patriots.”
Nakasone emerged from the crisis and was recognized as a capable statesman in managing Japan’s diplomacy with China. There was no accusation that Nakasone was “selling out” to Beijing. Nor were his conservative, nationalist, and pro-American credentials damaged.
This episode suggests that Koizumi’s hardline position isn’t the only option. A Japanese prime minister can be strong without exploiting domestic resentment against the country’s neighbors, and conservative, patriotic, and pro-American while forging a healthy working relationship with China. Indeed, the cessation of Yasukuni visits would likely open the door to the long-overdue Sino-Japanese summit, which in turn might strengthen moderate voices in China seeking a future-oriented relationship with Japan.
Unfortunately, Koizumi and his allies are not prepared to move forward on the Yasukuni issue. As Foreign Minister Aso recently put it: “The more China voices [opposition], the more one feels like going there. It’s just like when you’re told ‘Don't smoke cigarettes,’ it actually makes you want to smoke.”
No one expects the current Japanese and Chinese leaders to embrace, as Nakasone and Hu did two decades ago, but it is a sad state of affairs when the leaders of neighboring giants pretend not to see each other at international forums. If Nakasone, who now urges Koizumi to stop the Yasukuni pilgrimage, were to respond to Aso, he might simply extend the analogy: it is not in Japan’s national interest to continue to inhale Koizumi’s second-hand smoke.