Annual vigil at a contentious Japanese shrine

Every Aug. 15, the normally serene Yasukuni shrine in the center of Tokyo becomes the setting for a stakeout.

The watchers are Japan's media. And they're watching for politicians, keeping count of who does and who does not show at this shrine to the war dead on the emotionally charged anniversary of Imperial Japan's surrender in World War II.

With its soothing lanterns and elegant rice-paper walls, the 140-year-old Yasukuni is a place of contemplation and contention. The Shinto shrine is the repository for the souls of the roughly 2.5 million soldiers who died in the emperor's wars, and supporters say it serves the same purpose as Arlington in a country that has no national war cemetery.

But others -- including many in those countries who were victims of Japan's aggression in the 20th century -- see Yasukuni as a guardian of the militarist values that led to millions of deaths. Their anger stems from the decision by the Shinto priests controlling the shrine to accept the souls of 14 Japanese leaders executed after World War II as war criminals.

The willingness of politicians to visit such a site angers China and South Korea, which suffered under Japanese occupation, as well as Japanese citizens unhappy with what they see as Yasukuni's revisionist view of the war. By paying respects at the shrine, critics say, Japanese politicians betray an unrepentant view of Japan's role in the war's origins.

"It's an annual ritual," said journalist and historian Miki Tanikawa of the "will they or won't they go" speculation. "Reporters know the strong foreign reaction to a prime minister's official visit here -- the anger and resentment."

This year, the eyes are on Prime Minister Taro Aso, who has described past Chinese protests as meddling in Japan's internal affairs. Reason enough to go, Aso used to say when he was not prime minister and used to stop by the shrine himself. As a Cabinet minister, he even suggested the emperor should pay a visit.

As prime minister, it's politically more dicey. Sure, Junichiro Koizumi used to go every year when he was prime minister (though he waited until he was on his way out of office before going on Aug. 15), calling it "a private affair." But the cost was a freeze with the Chinese government, whose leaders refused to have anything to do with Koizumi, sending relations between Asia's two biggest powers into the tank.

Koizumi's successor was Shinzo Abe, a strong nationalist whose grandfather was a wartime Cabinet minister, and who also used to praise the merits of going to Yasukuni. But Abe's first order of business upon becoming prime minister was to improve those soured ties with China. The shrine took a back seat. In office, he never went.

Yasukuni was built in 1869 during the Meiji Restoration as Japan ushered in a new era as a modern state. Its romantic appeal stems from the well-told story that soldiers going into battle would console each other by saying they would meet in the afterlife at Yasukuni.

The controversy did not really arise until 1978, when the Shinto priests at the shrine agreed to accept the souls, until then excluded, of 14 "Class A" war criminals. After that, Emperor Hirohito, who had visited the shrine in 1975, refused to go again.

But trouble erupted in 1985 when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone upped the ante by making one of his visits on Aug. 15, the 40th anniversary of the war's end. China furiously protested, and some Japanese filed lawsuits, claiming that the prime minister's visit violated a constitutional separation of church and state.

In ensuing years, some prime ministers avoided Yasukuni, while others made secret visits. Meanwhile, hundreds of lawmakers continued to show up, many with fanfare.

The media attention has irked politicians who insist that they come not as public servants but as private citizens. Critics counter that they use tax money for limousines and bodyguards and sign the guest register as national representatives.

In 1996, when asked how he had signed the book, then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto snapped: "Mind your own business."

Koizumi was less opaque. Flanked by guards, his visits usually lasted only a minute or two. At times, he brought offerings such as a floral wreath and waved to bystanders as though making a campaign appearance.

"I cannot understand why worshiping at Yasukuni is objectionable," he said in 2005. "And I cannot understand why foreign governments interfere in this matter of the heart."

But emotions are not stirred by external protests alone. Much of the controversy is related to the adjacent war museum, which presents what critics say is a white-washed view that dismisses evidence of Japanese atrocities. The result is a slew of books, documentaries, lawsuits and even cyber attacks that have temporarily closed the shrine's website, turning Yasukuni into a proxy battle over Japanese history and identity.

"Why are war criminals together with those who served their country honorably?" said Kichiro Homma, 70, during a visit to the shrine to honor two brothers who died in World War II. "They were the ones who started the war. They sent our young into battle -- people who didn't want to leave their families and go to war."

The shrine's response is steadfast: The dead are martyrs of the state whose names cannot be removed. "All souls at Yasukuni are the same," said Yoshihiro Miyazawa, the shrine's public relations director. "You cannot separate them."

Other shrine visitors aren't so diplomatic.

"This is Japan," said Takeshi Kashiwaya, a 39-year-old music salesman. "We will say what we will do and not do. The rest of the world should mind its own business."

That was Aso's line before he became prime minister. But in office he seems to be backing off, saying Monday that Yasukuni is a place for "quiet prayers."

"I think it is wrong to make people who sacrificed their precious lives for the state a political or election issue or fodder for newspapers," he said. "They should be far away from the [media] frenzy."

From his vantage point just outside Yasukuni, pigeon keeper Shizuo Akiya has watched the prime ministers come and go. He objects to their visits, he said, but doesn't speak out. Like many of his countrymen, he prefers to just let Yasukuni be.

"The Japanese have never really examined what happened in World War II, what we did, what we were responsible for," he said. "I don't think we can. It would be just too painful."


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