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Koizumi's visits boost controversial version of history

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To be sure, modern Japan is so cosmopolitan and diverse, and the general tenor of its political culture so mild that few experts see anything like a full-blown resurgent nationalist Japan on the horizon. But the rise of China has worried many Japanese. "Left alone in a domestic context, Japanese don't buy this kind of ideology," notes Professor Yoshihide Soeya of Keio University. "But it comes up due to the concern about China. Sadly, many Chinese believe the Yasukuni shrine thinking represents the majority of Japanese. It does not."

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Still, Japan is at a transitional moment, when the old regime forged in the 1950s is dead but no new clear direction has emerged in a defining way.

The museum, which dates to the mid-19th century, was set up to promote what became a powerful notion in the Meiji era (1868-1912) - that the emperor and the Japanese people were one. "One hundred million [Japanese] hearts beat as one," the saying went. That concept was seen as crucial to the intensity and the blind obedience of the military. After the war, emperor worship was forbidden by US occupiers. A recognition of the collective psychosis it engendered has been regarded as a lesson of the war. Yet extremism has persisted: the remains of the 14 Class A war criminals at Yasukuni were put there only in the 1970s, and only secretly.

But on the Yasukuni property, the concept of the emperor as the spiritual leader is quite strong. One poem on display reads: "We shall die in the sea/We shall die in the mountain/In whatever way/We shall die beside the emperor/ Never turning back...."

The thesis of a martyred and misunderstood Japan dates to the end of the war. In 1964 it was articulated by Hayashi Fusao in his "In Affirmation of the Great East Asian War." By the early 1990s, when some texts began showing up with this theory, it was still considered slightly nutty. Now it is appearing in a polished format in the same venue as the prime minister's visits, described as "private."

"In this version of history, Japan has done nothing wrong," says the foreign diplomat. "That is quite a burden to bear."

How Japan was 'forced' into war

In a small theater near an exhibit marked "Spirit of the Samurai," a grainy black-and-white film purports to show how the US went to war with Japan. In it, the US "forced" Japan to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The film shows familiar shots of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and newsreels of Secretary of State Cordell Hull visiting the White House in a top hat, and meeting with Japanese ambassadors.

What is not familiar is the story line. In a version that most historians would refute, Mr. Roosevelt drew Japan into a conflict hoping, in part, this would end the Great Depression: "The only option open to Roosevelt ... was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war.... The US economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered."

When Secretary Hull asked Japan to remove its troops from China in the spring of 1941 and to stop the planned invasion of Southeast Asia, this "showed the US was hostile to Japan." As old diplomatic images scroll, a voiceover says: "We had huge interests in China and many fellow countrymen.... We could absolutely not abandon these interests."

US requests during that summer to negotiate were "a pretext for the Americans to initiate hostilities toward Japan."

The timeline speeds up: On July 25, Japanese "advances" into French Indochina give the US "the excuse it needs to adopt hard-line policies against Japan." On Aug. 1, "The US resolves to go to war against Japan." The Aug. 10-14 mid-Atlantic meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill results in a secret agreement to carry out the attack on Japan. On Nov. 7, "The US plan to force Japan in to war is set in motion." Nov. 20: Japanese ambassadors in Washington attempt a final compromise. But by Nov. 25, Roosevelt is "exploring ways of getting Japan to attack."