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Japan's New Leadership Faces the Yasukuni Test
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By Eric Teo Chu Cheow

Today is a landmark date in Japanese politics, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elects a new leader to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is stepping down voluntarily after what is widely viewed in Asia as a colorful but controversial five-year premiership. The new LDP leader will automatically become Japan's new prime minister, as the party holds an uncontestable majority in the lower house of the legislature.

All prognostics give Shinzo Abe, chief cabinet secretary under Koizumi (and Koizumi's anointed successor) the victory in a three-way race.

Abe is without doubt massively supported by LDP stalwarts and the grassroots for domestic political reasons, although many critics also fear his hawkish stance on China and the two Koreas, whose relations with Japan have soured under Koizumi.

Critics of Abe, both within Japan and in the region, view him as a hawkish nationalist, given his conservative lineage and recent pronouncements.

Abe's grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, a minister in Japanese-controlled Manchukuo who spent three years in prison for World War II crimes, became a founding member of the LDP and then prime minister of Japan.

Then there was Abe's grand-uncle, Eisaku Sato. Also a Japanese prime minister, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Abe's own father was a career LDP politician, who served as foreign minister under then-prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

All three men have been known to be conservatives, who favored a strong alliance with the United States to "normalize" Japan; Abe would most likely prove to be no different.

On the other hand, many have stated that Abe could be a pragmatist, who would know not to go too far unlike his predecessor, who challenged Beijing and Seoul by incessantly visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine five times within his five years in office, despite strong protests from Tokyo's immediate neighbors.

So far, Abe has abstained from declaring if he would visit the Shrine, as China and Republic of Korea (ROK) leaders hold their breaths. Perhaps, Abe's current strategy is not to start his term in Japan's highest political office with this highly controversial issue, which clearly plagued Koizumi before him.

In fact, 15 August 2006 will be remembered by many in Asia for Koizumi's "last defiance," when he visited the controversial Shrine on the anniversary of Japan's surrender following its defeat in the Pacific War 61 years ago. No Japanese prime minister had chosen that day for a shrine visit since Nakasone in 1985.

To recall the emotional strain within Asia, not only did China and the ROK protest vigorously as expected, but the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs unprecedentedly issued a statement, calling the visit both a domestic issue and an international concern, thus "regrettable" and "not helpful." Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda also weighed in to express regret, and a demonstration was held, mostly by Malaysian Chinese, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In a way, this was the first time Southeast Asians came out so openly to deny Koizumi's oft-repeated assertions that only Chinese and Koreans opposed his visit, and not Southeast Asians, who had suffered equally in the Pacific War and endured three and a half years of Japanese Imperial Army occupation, from Viet Nam through Malaysia and Singapore all the way down to Indonesia.

Koizumi's August 15 visit also elicited a reaction from Washington. Though the American statement was "soft" and clearly tried to balance between Beijing/Seoul and Tokyo, it was nevertheless the first time the Americans came out with such a "Yasukuni statement."

One would recall that Koizumi, during his farewell visit to Washington to call on his "good friend," US President George W. Bush, was denied an address to a joint session of Congress by Henry Hyde, chairman of the US Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, who had himself fought in the Pacific War.

Similarly, there have also been some discordant voices heard recently in Australia against Koizumi's Yasukuni visits, as Australian veterans involved in the "Death Railway" in Kanchanaburi in Thailand remembered the Japanese Imperial Army's World War II atrocities against them in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

There are also growing voices of concern within Japan, like LDP legislator Kochi Kato (a former LDP secretary-general) as well as prominent names within journalistic and literary circles, who have come out openly to condemn Koizumi's Yasukuni visits. Just recently, 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial in profound silence and remorse, and also met with some survivors of the 1937-38 massacre.

Even the latest polls within Japan have indicated that more and more Japanese are now aware that their country's relations with China and the ROK have deteriorated thanks to Koizumi's continued shrine visits in spite of appeals from Tokyo's neighbors, economic relationships with whom have undoubtedly helped pull Japan up economically in the last two years.

Abe should heed these public indications within Japan, as well as the recent "imperial leak" revealing that the late Emperor Hirohito (who had "launched" the Pacific War in 1941) made a point not to visit Yasukuni after the 14 Class A war criminals were enshrined there in 1978.

Abe should also heed Chinese President Hu Jintao's pronouncements on the anniversary of the liberation of China from Japanese occupation and the most recent declaration of Premier Wen Jiabao in Helsinki, Finland, urging the new Japanese prime minister to "remove the impending political obstacles to Sino-Japanese relations."

With choruses joining those from within Japan, growing protests from China and the ROK now joined by those from some Southeast Asian countries, the United States and Australia, this constitutes a dire warning to the new prime minister of Japan as he ponders the Yasukuni issue upon assuming the premiership later this month.

There is no doubt that, as Japan strives to become a "normal country," the Yasukuni issue is fast becoming an "abnormal anomaly" of Japan's historical legacy with the rest of the Asia-Pacific.

It is therefore without doubt that Yasukuni would be an extremely dicey test for the new prime minister in regional relations, as he faces severe tests in domestic politics ranging from the tough local and upper-house elections in his first 12 months in office and a resurgent opposition to reviving "failed" economic, social and even, perhaps the controversial constitutional reforms, left over from the Koizumi days.

Abe should clearly "cool" the regional front and make a real gesture to Japan's immediate neighbors, in a show of solidarity with Asia at large.

The author is a council member of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs.

(China Daily September 20, 2006)


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