TOKYO—Each year, some 5 million Japanese amble to a leafy corner of Tokyo to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where they stand before an altar, bow twice, clap twice and bow again to the spirits of Japan's war dead. Many then wander through a museum that glorifies Japan's past militarism.
Defenders of the shrine say that paying respects there is akin to visiting Arlington National Cemetery or a religious site.
But to people across much of East Asia, especially in China and South Korea, the shrine and its adjacent museum rub raw the wounds of World War II. They say the shrine embodies an active effort by some in Japan to whitewash wartime atrocities and even justify renewed militarism.
The issue is far from academic. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has visited the shrine four times since taking office in 2001 and is facing immediate questions whether he will return to the shrine following a landslide victory in Sept. 11 elections to fulfill a long-standing pledge to families of military veterans.
Previous prime ministers have visited the shrine. Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto made what he said was a private visit, on his birthday in July 1996.
The shrine, tucked in a tranquil corner of the Chiyoda district in Tokyo, is at the heart of frictions in Northeast Asia, especially between China and Japan. Economic ties between the two powerhouses are growing at a speed only matched by the swelling distrust that undermines their relationship. China last year surpassed the United States to become Japan's No. 1 trading partner.
Leaders of China and Japan have not held a joint summit in six years, and China says no summit will occur until Koizumi pledges to halt further visits to Yasukuni.
Yet the reality of modern Japan is that well-financed right-wing forces are on the rise, and politicians who defy conservative demands for visits to the shrine do so at their peril.
"Going to Yasukuni is like their litmus test," said Jeff Kingston, a historian who is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. "It is sort of like Republicans and being against abortion."
A fledgling movement is afoot for the government to set up a secular war memorial, or perhaps intervene with the foundation that runs the shrine and ask that the names of the 14 class-A war criminals enshrined there be removed from a registry. The 14 are among 2.4 million combatants and civilian employees of the military whose spirits are venerated at the shrine, which was founded in 1869 as a Shinto religious site.
Leaders of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, whose 2 million members sustain the shrine, adamantly oppose such moves.
"Let me tell you, it is impossible," said Yuko Tojo, the granddaughter of Gen. Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tojo, one of the class-A war criminals, was found guilty by a U.S.-backed tribunal and hanged in 1948.
"We are not going to make an alternative war monument. It would be a waste. There would be no religion, no soul, no spirits. Nobody would visit," Yuko Tojo said.
Like other nationalists, Tojo's granddaughter rejects accounts of Japanese atrocities and declares that Japan colonized neighboring countries and attacked the United States in self-defense because its economy was being choked off.
It's a story line repeated in graphic detail in the Yasukuni museum. Set to martial music, exhibits glorify the samurai tradition and exalt the sacrifice of Japanese soldiers who, in the name of the emperor, invaded foreign lands and sparked World War II.
"The museum teaches an entirely different history. Its purpose from beginning to end is to tell the Japanese people that Japan did nothing wrong," said Wenran Jiang, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations at the University of Alberta in Canada.
The museum omits mention of the Japanese military's use of Korean and Chinese women as forced prostitutes and biological experimentation on prisoners in China. It offers a benign history of a number of events, such as the 1937 Japanese storming of Nanjing, then the capital of China, in which some historians say tens of thousands of civilians, and perhaps more, were killed.
"Saying the Nanjing residents cheerfully welcomed the Japanese troops into the city, that is completely false," said Jiang, who is of Chinese origin.
"It was quite hard to walk through there," Jiang said of a recent visit to the shrine. "You say, `Wow! How could they do this?' Many things are twisted facts."
Some Japanese visiting the shrine voice puzzlement at the combustibility of the issue. They say the winners imposed their version of wartime history, yet Japan has a right to view history as it sees fit. They also wonder why neighboring countries don't accept repeated Japanese apologies for its pre-war and World War II actions.
"It can't be helped that Chinese and Koreans aren't satisfied with our apologies," said Yokomizo Haruhiko, a 33-year-old businessman.
A university student from the northern island of Hokkaido, Yuki Shimokuni, said curiosity drew her: "There are so many issues. I wanted to come and see for myself."
Until recently, mainstream Japanese newspapers supported visits by the prime minister to the shrine. But as Japan's deteriorating relations with its neighbors pose an economic threat, attitudes have evolved, even as newspapers note that Japan's post-war pacifism is unblemished.
"It is unimaginable that this nation would ever return to its prewar militarism," Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, said in an editorial Aug. 16 that called on Koizumi to clarify his position on the shrine. "The prime minister should not remain ambiguous about whether to continue visiting Yasukuni Shrine and to build the state-administered memorial for the war dead."
Koizumi, whose election victory gives him nearly a free hand to govern, has gotten even more circumspect about whether he will fulfill pledges to visit regularly.
"I will decide appropriately," Koizumi said during an Aug. 30 debate, adding that even if he did refrain from further visits, "I don't think all the other issues with China would get resolved."
Indeed, many Japanese believe China's communist leadership manipulates anti-Japanese sentiment to divert attention from domestic problems.
Koizumi may have gained wiggle room with his stunning election victory.
"The size of his victory now opens the possibility that he won't go back to Yasukuni," said Gerald L. Curtis, a Japan scholar from Columbia University residing in Tokyo. "He is so strong that he can take the criticism for not going back."
For her part, Tojo asserted that Koizumi would certainly make further visits.
"As a politician, once he promised, he cannot not go," she said.
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Emiko Doi contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Yasukuni Shrine
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-SHRINE
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