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Japan's History Test

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated: August 15, 2006

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Imperial visits to the controversial Yasukuni memorial stopped almost thirty years ago. A 1988 memorandum, leaked last month, revealed that the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito ended his visits after the enshrinement of war criminals at the memorial in 1978. "That is why I've since stopped visiting. That is how I feel in my heart," said Hirohito (Yomiuri). But the imperial memo hasn't stopped Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from making another annual visit to the shrine (The Age)—which honors 2.5 million war dead along with more than a thousand war criminals—on the August 15 anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender. The visit drew immediate condemnation from China and South Korea (ChiTrib).

Some six million Japanese visit the shrine every year, but Newsweek reports growing domestic opposition to the visits, including from five ex-prime ministers. A recent opinion poll conducted by The Asahi Shinbum after Hirohito's memo was made public shows that a majority of Japanese people are against Koizumi's visits.

In addition to opposition at home, the visits, which Koizumi started making in 2001, have aggravated already shaky relations with South Korea and China, which view Yasukuni as a monument to Japan's militaristic past and its failure to apologize for atrocities committed during its occupation of both countries in the first half of the twentieth century (Reuters). Princeton University professor Gary J. Bass says a decision to refrain from another visit would offer Koizumi a chance to mend relations with neighbors and be "remembered as a statesman" (NYT).

Others see the Yasukuni controversy at the center of growing jingoism in Northeast Asia. The Korea Times calls on Japanese leaders to stop using the shrine as a means to rationalize militarism, and says Japan, South Korea, and China are "reviving nineteenth-century nationalism in the twenty-first century." Japan expert Tessa Morris-Suzuki writes in The Australian Age that preoccupation with the Middle East has resulted in a missed opportunity for the United States to mediate relations between the three countries, even as North Korean missile testing has boosted nationalistic candidates for leadership in Japan and South Korea.

Meanwhile, Japan is moving away from its post-war pacifist posture, explained in this Backgrounder. An article in The Washington Quarterly by Wu Xinbo, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, discusses Chinese concerns that the Bush administration's close security ties with Japan have fostered militarism under Koizumi's conservative watch (PDF). In the Far East Economic Review, Kazuhiko Togo, a former Japanese diplomat, makes a case for a moratorium on visits as a first step in healing relations with China, which has suspended high-level talks with Japan since 2002 in part because of the shrine issue.

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