Japanese voters split over war shrine visits

Japanese voters are sharply divided over whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should keep visiting a shrine where war criminals are honored with other war dead, but many object to China’s calls for him to stop, surveys published on Tuesday showed.

Each year since taking office in 2001, Koizumi has paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 “Class A” war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal in 1948 are enshrined along with nearly 2.5 million of Japan’s war dead.

The visits have outraged China, where anger over Japan’s past military aggression and wartime atrocities remains a powerful force nearly six decades after the end of World War Two.

Forty-six percent of respondents to a survey by public broadcaster NHK said that Koizumi should continue the visits to Yasukuni, compared with 38 percent who thought he should stop.

A similar survey by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper also showed that 46 percent were in favor of Koizumi paying homage at the shrine, while 41 percent thought he should stop.

Only 10 percent of the 1,179 respondents to the NHK survey found China’s complaints understandable, while 44 percent said they understood Koizumi’s explanation for why he goes.

The prime minister has repeatedly said he goes to the shrine to pay his respects to those who died for their country and to pray for peace.

Of those who said Koizumi should continue the Yasukuni visits, 53 percent said they took that view because other countries should not interfere in such matters, NHK said.

For many in Asian countries victimized by Japanese aggression, Yasukuni is a detested symbol of the state Shinto religion that mobilized the masses for war in the name of a divine emperor.

The shrine has domestic critics as well, but for many Japanese it is a solemn memorial to those who died for their country.

Negative fallout

Feuds between Tokyo and Beijing over Yasukuni are not new.

But analysts and Japanese business executives are growing worried about lasting damage to relations already frayed by mistrust over security policies and regional rivalry.

Fifty percent of those who told NHK that Koizumi should halt his visits to Yasukuni cited the negative impact on ties with China and South Korea as the reason.

Another 28 percent said the visits could violate the Constitution, which mandates the separation of Church and State.

Asked about another thorny bilateral topic—Japan’s official development aid to China—62 percent of respondents to the NHK survey said Japan should stop providing the assistance eventually and 17 percent said it should do so immediately.

Japanese government officials have said China should “graduate” from Tokyo’s aid in the near future because of the country’s robust economic growth and some politicians feel Beijing’s military build-up is another reason.

Japan noted China’s military modernization as a cause for concern last week in a sweeping review of its defense policy.

Beijing, in turn, expressed its own concerns about the new defense posture, which shifts from the purely defensive stance Tokyo has adopted since its defeat in World War Two, and it called the mention of China “extremely irresponsible.”