Kwan Weng Kin: Koizumi's Obstinacy Could Isolate Japan ... Yasukuni and Asia

Roundup: Talking About History

[This article appeared in the Straits Times on January 13, 2006. Kwan Weng Kin is the Japan correspondent for the Straits Times ( Singapore).]

... Critics say Mr Koizumi makes up for his lack of diplomatic finesse by his deftness at substituting real issues with those of his own creation.

He insists that his decision to visit Yasukuni is a 'matter of the heart' and that it is natural for a prime minister to express gratitude to his country's war dead.

But China and South Korea are not complaining about him praying for the souls of his countrymen who fell in battle, or pledging not to go to war again.

The problem is that Mr Koizumi insists on doing both at the infamous shrine.

Mr Koizumi, it seems, fails to understand this. Or perhaps he has never tried to do so.

As a young man and even after becoming a politician, he had not displayed the slightest interest in Yasukuni. It was only when he ran in the 2001 presidential elections of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he pledged to make annual visits to the shrine in order to win the votes of members of the Association of War Bereaved Families, a powerful backer of the party.

Many Japanese believe that Mr Koizumi continues to visit the shrine because he makes a virtue of carrying through with his promises, no matter what negative implications they may hold.

Given the obstinate streak in Mr Koizumi's character, the protests from China and South Korea only make it more difficult for him to back down.

Reports also suggest that he had resolved to continue Yasukuni visits as a way to spite Beijing, after a tumultuous encounter with then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in October 2002 on the fringes of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, during which Mr Jiang reportedly berated him over Yasukuni for most of their 45-minute meeting.

Weekly news magazines and commentators on cable television current affairs talk shows have recently taken to describing Mr Koizumi's stance on Yasukuni as 'childish'. By pursing his own personal interests, they believe, Mr Koizumi has hurt Japan.

The Yasukuni issue, for instance, gave Beijing a convenient excuse last year to oppose Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The danger is that Mr Koizumi's theatrics - for example, when talking about Yasukuni at the New Year press conference, his eyes glazed over - may mislead the Japanese people.

His performance was doubtless aimed at his domestic audience, and calculated to drum up popular support.

For there are many Japanese, especially among the younger generation, who do not understand the fuss over Yasukuni but will readily agree that Mr Koizumi is right not to buckle under pressure from China and South Korea.

It appears that the stubborn Mr Koizumi will stick to his stance on Yasukuni until he steps down as Prime Minister in September, when his term as LDP leader runs out.

The problem is that the stand-off over Yasukuni may continue after he goes.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the current front runner in the succession stakes based on his overwhelming popularity with voters, regretfully shows much the same naivety as Mr Koizumi, who is his diplomatic model.

Asian nations are clearly perturbed that Mr Koizumi's exit may not end the spat with China and South Korea.

According to Jiji Press, Singapore's Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told visiting Japanese politician Taku Yamasaki in Singapore on Tuesday that he hopes Japan 's next prime minister will refrain from visiting Yasukuni.

The United States has also expressed concern over Japan's inability to counter China's apparent use of war issues, including Yasukuni, to isolate Japan in East Asia.

In a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, former White House security official Michael Green pointed to Japan's lack of a strategy against the Chinese.

'One solution is for PM Koizumi to stop going to Yasukuni. But that is for him to decide,' Mr Green told the Mainichi.

American scholar Kent Calder of Johns Hopkins University reportedly said at a closed-door meeting here recently that the US feared a worst-case scenario in which countries in the region decided to go ahead and form an East Asian Community without Japan.

Mr Koizumi, who claims he is 'always open' to dialogue, would have his people believe that the ball is now in the court of Beijing and Seoul.

Clearly, it is not.

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