When millions of Japanese gather at shrines across the nation to welcome the New Year, all eyes will be focused on where Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pays his respects.
Last Jan. 1, Mr. Koizumi went to Yasukuni, a shrine in Tokyo dedicated to Japan's war dead, stirring a political controversy that has bubbled throughout his four-year term. Yasukuni is controversial because it honors not only civilian victims and regular soldiers from wars dating back to the 19th century, but also more than 1,000 convicted war criminals from World War II, including executed wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo and 13 other class-A war criminals.
Not surprisingly, trips to the shrine by Japanese politicians infuriate countries like China, which was occupied during the war. Mr. Koizumi says his yearly visits are an act of remembrance so as not to repeat the mistakes of war.
While only a radical fringe in Japan still insist that the country's armed forces were wrongly condemned for war atrocities, the debate over Yasukuni highlights one of the noteworthy features of Japan's Shinto religion, which doesn't distinguish between good and evil when it comes to questions of the eternal.
As a pantheist faith, Shinto holds that every object contains a divine spirit, and all aspects of existence have the capacity to be gods. A vast array of shrines dotting the country honor everything from local forests to clocks, snack foods to currency markets.
Because everything is considered divine, those enshrined at Yasukuni are also said to be worthy of religious adulation. "A god doesn't necessarily have to be virtuous," says Yoshinobu Miyake, a Shinto expert at the International Shinto Foundation who also runs a private think tank on religions. The belief that a person's conduct during life is irrelevant to the bestowal of divinity after death has thus been used to explain the enshrinement of war criminals at Yasukuni, he says.
Former prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985 and Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996 both caused uproar with their visits to Yasukuni. Koizumi's regular trips drew stern rebukes from both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao at bilateral summit talks in November, adding tension to a spat over a natural gas field that lies between Japan and China, and the recent incursion of a Chinese nuclear sub into Japanese waters.
Some have suggested that Tokyo could defuse the problem and find a more acceptable way to grieve for the war dead by "moving" the spirits of the war criminals to an alternate shrine.
But Yasukuni is a religious institution that is independent from the Japanese government. As such, the government has no control over who is enshrined there. Families of Korean and Taiwanese colonial soldiers who fought for Japan during the war have had no success in trying to remove their ancestors from the "Book of Souls" at Yasukuni, which bestows divinity on the war dead. The shrine is notoriously apologetic toward Japan's conduct during the war, saying on its website that the war criminals are martyrs who were "cruelly and unjustly tried ... by a sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces."
The idea of anyone asking Yasukuni to "move" the spirits also fails to take into account freedom of religion, says Mr. Miyake. "There is no way that public opinion or civic authorities can dictate what an independent religious body should or should not worship - what Yasukuni enshrines is solely the decision of the shrine itself," he says.
Even so, Shinto experts say that such a soul-relocation could be performed. "It would be possible to remove the class-A war criminals from Yasukuni if certain [religious] rituals were undertaken," says Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of Shinto studies at Kokugakuin University. "But the priests at Yasukuni have no such intention."
Others have suggested building a new secular monument to Japan's war dead, but the remaining old soldiers and the families of the deceased are strongly opposed to the idea. "Yasukuni is where all the dead are waiting, no matter what kind of monument they built in another place, the dead wouldn't be there," says Hiromi Kawasaki, who was a mini-sub operator during World War II.
The public is split on the issue. This week a poll by the newspaper Nikkei Shimbun found that 48 percent want Koizumi to continue his trips to Yasukuni, while 36 percent are opposed.
Whether he will visit Saturday remains unclear. But many observers say he is likely to return at least once in 2005.
"If he says he is visiting as a private citizen, criticism from abroad may weaken a little, but basically, this problem can't be solved," says Professor Inoue. "Perhaps the most effective method would just be to wait another 10 or 20 years."