Japan PM Kan sends signal to Asian neighbors by shunning Yasukuni Shrine

Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered his cabinet to avoid the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of WWII. It underscores his shift toward improving relations with Asian neighbors.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan attends a memorial service for those who died in World War Two during a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of Japan's surrender in the war at Budokan Hall in Tokyo August 15.

For the first time in decades, no member of the Japanese cabinet visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of WWII – provoking anger among hardcore nationalists but messages of support from other quarters.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced his decision not to visit the Shinto shrine shortly after taking office in June, saying, “As Class-A war criminals are enshrined there, an official visit by the prime minister or cabinet members is problematic. I have no plans to make a visit during my tenure.”

No Japanese prime minister has visited the shrine while in office since Junichiro Koizumi, who made numerous visits during his premiership (2002-2006). However, at least one cabinet member of previous administrations of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has attended every year. The LDP ruled Japan almost uninterrupted since the war until its defeat last year to Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The order for cabinet ministers to avoid Yasukuni is evidence of “the continued shift by the DPJ toward stronger relations with Asian countries like Korea and China, and away from the US,” says Testuro Kato, a visiting professor of politics at Tokyo’s Waseda University. Kan has taken a more conciliatory tone than his LDP predecessors, including an apology to Korea earlier this month on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s colonization of the peninsula

“The average age of the Kan cabinet is also younger than previous administrations so it’s natural for them to be less inclined to visit Yasukuni,” says Professor Kato.

The shrine, in central Tokyo, lists the names of some 2.5 million Japanese war dead from generations of conflicts, including that of wartime leader Hideki Tojo, who was executed after WWII, and 13 other Class A war criminals. Yasukuni creates controversy because of this and a nearby museum that many claim glorifies the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army. It is a magnet for rightwing demonstrators and their opponents, particularly on important anniversaries such as Aug. 15.

Prime Minister Kan attended a service for the wartime dead at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall on Sunday, which included Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko among the 6,000 guests.

"I truly hope that the horror of war will not be repeated and, together with all the Japanese people, I pay a heartfelt tribute to those who lost their lives on the battlefield and fell in the ravages of war," said Emperor Akihito, whose father Emperor Hirohito was on the Chrysanthemum Throne during WWII.

“We feel deep regret, and we offer our sincere feelings of condolence to those who suffered and their families. We inflicted great damage and suffering on many nations during the war,” said Kan.

After the ceremony, Kan visited another memorial and laid a floral tribute to the 3 million Japanese who lost their lives during the war.

A nationalist group that visited the shrine criticized the prime minister’s actions. "In Japan, Yasukuni Shrine is the central memorial to commemorate the war dead," the group said in a statement, "and it is matter of course for the prime minister to represent all Japanese people and visit the shrine on August 15, which is the day to commemorate war dead and wish for peace."

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