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Japan’s Kamikaze Isolation

It almost seems as if Japan is bent on self-isolation in Asia. After a few months during which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ostensibly sought to improve his country’s relations with China, his fifth visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine has again raised tempers. China and South Korea both cancelled meetings of their foreign ministers with their Japanese counterpart. Once again, Japan has missed a chance to rebuild trust in a part of the world where, in the absence of cooperative international institutions, trust is all there is.

Why does Japan still not understand that the way it treats its history echoes across every part of Asia that Japan’s military occupied in the first part of the 20th century? Japanese reactions reveal an extraordinary degree of stubborn self-righteousness.

As Japan’s government never ceases to point out, the Yasukuni shrine, built in 1869, venerates the 2.5 million Japanese who have died for their country, not just the 14 judged as war criminals after WWII. But, while many Japanese feel (with some justification) that South Korea and, in particular, China, exploit the Yasukuni issue to reduce Japan’s influence in the region and to pander to their publics’ strong nationalism, they are missing the point.

Indeed, domestic politicking seems to be at least as important to Japan’s leaders as to South Koreas’s or China’s. Koizumi’s visit to the shrine, officially presented as that of a private citizen, was intended to impress the Japanese public, regardless of its effects abroad.