Japan's foreign minister cancels controversial war ceremony at last minute

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A planned service at a Buddhist temple to commemorate Japanese war dead, which critics had said was a propaganda exercise, was suddenly cancelled yesterday by Japan's Foreign Minister, Taro Aso.

Invitations for Monday's service that were sent to Australia, Britain, the United States and the Netherlands have been withdrawn. A letter delivered to embassies in Tokyo said Mr Aso will now make a "personal and private" commemoration.

"This fiasco never had a great chance of succeeding," said Robyn Lim, professor of international relations at Nanzan University. Lim, an Australian, is a former acting head of current intelligence at the Office of National Assessments in Canberra.

"Mr Aso is still in denial that his own family company enslaved Australian POWs and that two of them died in his mine," she said.

Earlier this week the Herald aired criticism by historians, political analysts and veterans' representatives of the planned ceremony. Central to their criticisms were doubts that Mr Aso, an ambitious right-wing politician, held genuine remorse for Japan's war record and concern that he might manipulate the event for political advantage in his campaign to become prime minister.

Yoshiko Tamura, a Japanese historian who founded the POW Research Network of Japan to document the history of prisoners of war, said the remains of POWs once held at the Juganji temple, the planned backdrop for the ceremony, had been removed about 60 years ago. The ceremony was a "propaganda opportunity" for Mr Aso, she said.

The episode appears certain to put another hole in Mr Aso's prime ministerial ambitions. It is likely that the last-minute withdrawal of the invitations happened because the embassies, sensing the proposed event had turned into a public relations disaster, planned to send only junior diplomats.

Mr Aso, a surprise choice as foreign minister about eight months ago, has been publicly unsympathetic to criticism by Korea and China of Japan's cruel war record.

Mr Aso was criticised earlier this year when he said that Emperor Akihito should start visiting Yasukuni shrine, a memorial to the war dead and the country's most potent nationalist symbol.

Talks this weekend in Washington between President George Bush and the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, can be expected to discuss his likely successors.

The more likely prime minister is Shinzo Abe, heir to a right-wing political lineage at least as complex as Mr Aso's, but who is sending out pragmatic signals, a North Asia expert, Professor Ezra Vogel, said. He said Mr Abe "realises that this [Yasukuni shrine visits] is now a sensitive issue and is trying to back off".

'A third candidate, Yasuo Fukuda, has already declared that he will not visit the shrine. The test for the candidates comes on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in the war and a traditional day for visits to Yasukuni shrine.

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