Japanese to Koizumi: change tone toward China

A poll shows growing public opposition to controversial Tokyo war-shrine visits.

The Japanese public is becoming increasingly critical of their government's fractious relations with Beijing.

Rising anti-Japanese sentiment in China - sparked by controversial Japanese history textbooks - has frustrated many Japanese. And in the wake of angry public demonstrations in China, calls for a boycott of Japanese goods, and China's abrupt cancellation of high-level meetings last week, sentiment is growing that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should take a more conciliatory approach to Japan's largest trade partner.

Beijing has protested what it calls the whitewashing of Japan's wartime aggression in school texts, and pointed to recent comments from Mr. Koizumi that he intends to continue his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the war dead, including recognized war criminals.

Until recently, a majority of Japanese citizens seemed to be moderately in favor of Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni. But according to a Kyodo News poll last weekend, 58 percent of Japanese now oppose Koizumi's yearly trips to the shrine - a surge of 17 points from a similar survey last December. A number of other polls show a similar shift.

Tetsuro Kato, a political science expert at Japan's Hitotsubashi University, says the growing opposition to the visits "results from the heightened tension among countries in East Asia and a general sense of apprehension surrounding (these relations)."

The rising frustration, however, comes not just from the general population, but also from influential businessmen and those affiliated with the Komeito party - a Buddhist-backed partner in the governing coalition.

The call for Koizumi to take a more dovish line towards China suggests a softening of attitudes in a country often criticized for failing to take full responsibility for its brutal domination of Asia in the 1930s and '40s.

"There should be no making excuses and letting bygones be bygones," says Professor Yukio Besshi, a specialist in Japan-China relations at Japan's Shimane University. "The starting point from our side can only be knowing exactly what Japan did in Asia in the 100 years from the late 19th-century."

Mr. Besshi explains that while a long line of prime ministers have expressed regret, the words do not resonate with Chinese ears because of continued shrine visits by government officials. A very public apology by Koizumi in Jakarta in late April, for instance, coincided with a visit by 80 lawmakers to the Yasukuni Shrine on the same day.

Japanese newspapers have run features in recent days suggesting Japan follow Germany's lead in building more prevalent monuments to mark its wartime aggression, and urged the speedy creation of a new memorial to Japan's war dead.

Despite the major shift in public opinion, the issue remains a divisive one. Many younger Japanese, Besshi explains, lack the background knowledge to view the recent events from a broad perspective. Instead, Japanese 20-somethings tend to take a more nationalistic view as they analyze the recent anti-Japan demonstrations in isolation from other historical issues.

China, for its part, has done little to foster a reconciliation. Beijing often plays up Japan's wartime brutality to instill a sense of national victimization that is increasingly replacing Marxism as a rallying point for Chinese identity.

Politics is also in play; Beijing may be trying to prompt an early departure for Koizumi by portraying him as a leader who can't be dealt with, while simultaneously wooing Japanese business leaders into favoring a more conciliatory policy. Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi snubbed Koizumi last week - but only after making sure she stayed long enough to meet with Japan's most influential business lobby.

Yasukuni shrine could continue to be a source of tension between the countries. Politically active veterans' families in Japan insist the country recognize the sacrifices loved ones were forced to make. The Shinto religion holds that all war dead - even war criminals - be enshrined after death regardless of their conduct during life.

It is also not clear what the Japanese government can do to depoliticize the shrine. As a private institution, the religious locale is exempt from political interference due to the constitutional separation of religion and state.

"The question for the future is whether or not internal challenges within each country bode well for a healthy relationship," says Sheila Smith, a research fellow in Japanese foreign policy and regional security at the East-West Center in Hawaii. "The real test will be whether or not the two societies can live alongside each other in comfort as Chinese become more wealthy and as Japanese become more outspoken."

Japanese citizens question their war heritage

Amid troubled relations with Beijing, Japanese public opinion regarding Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni war shrine has shifted.

May 2005

Favor visits 34%

Oppose visits 58%

Dec. 2004

Favor visits 51%

Oppose visits 41%

Source: Kyodo News

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