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Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006

Aso wants Yasukuni as nonreligious war memorial


Staff writer

Foreign Minister Taro Aso stirred up more controversy Tuesday over Yasukuni Shrine by proposing it be stripped of its religious status and turned into a state-run war memorial.

News photo
Foreign Minister Taro Aso attends a Cabinet meeting Tuesday morning with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. KYODO PHOTO

The proposal, however, looks to face an uphill battle because the Shinto shrine isn't likely to embrace the idea.

Aso said the primary purpose of the proposal is to depoliticize the religious institution and make sure it can be permanently maintained as a memorial using central government resources. He made no mention, however, about whether his envisioned memorial would still include the Class-A war criminals, the main diplomatic bone of contention.

"My basic idea is what should we do to prepare an environment where people, including relatives (of the war dead), foreign guests, high-ranking government officials and, of course, the Emperor, can quietly visit (Yasukuni)" to pray for the peace of the war dead, Aso said Tuesday.

The hawkish lawmaker's proposal, which appeared as an essay in Tuesday's edition of the Asahi Shimbun, was later released to reporters as a six-page paper.

Aso also said Yasukuni is facing financial difficulties because an increasing number of relatives who come to pray for the war dead are dying, and their donations constitute the bulk of the shrine's income.

"The average age of the widows whose husbands died in the war is 86.8 today," according to Aso's paper, which also notes the number of people receiving war pensions fell to 150,000 in 2005, compared with 1.54 million in 1982. Aso implied the shrine hasn't been able to keep up with this drop.

"I heard the annual budget of Yasukuni this year has decreased to one-third that of 20 years ago," wrote Aso, who is considered a possible candidate for the Sept. 20 Liberal Democratic Party presidential race, although he is not the front-runner

The annual running expenses of Yasukuni Shrine were not provided.

Aso's proposal mirrors one floated by LDP policy chief Hidenao Nakagawa, who wants the LDP to submit a bill that would put Yasukuni under state control by making it a nonreligious facility.

However, both Aso and Nakagawa stressed that the government has no legal right to control Yasukuni Shrine -- which is an independent religious corporation -- and that the proposals depend on the shrine itself voluntarily disbanding to create a new government-related body, which, according to Aso's proposal, would retain the name Yasukuni but would no longer be called a shrine.

For that to happen, the shrine would have to change its political views on Japan's wartime endeavors, which is highly unlikely.

The priests at Yasukuni maintain that Japan's acts of war were carried out for self-defense, and that the postwar international military tribunal that named and condemned the Class-A war criminals was invalid in terms of international law.

This view contradicts the government's official view, which states that Japan accepted the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Fast East.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni have drawn criticism from mainly two quarters -- domestic opponents who see the visits as violating the constitutional separation of state and religion, and from China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's wartime and occupation legacy linger.

The latter have repeatedly accused conservative politicians who visit Yasukuni, which honors 2.47 million war dead as well as the Class-A war criminals, of not fully repenting for Japan's aggression, occupation and atrocities in Asia.

Aso apparently hopes his proposal would put an end to the criticism.

Aso said he believes the issues related to Yasukuni are mainly domestic problems, not diplomatic ones.

For each year from 1969 to 1973, the LDP submitted a bill to the Diet to nationalize Yasukuni and strip it of its religious status. But the bill was scrapped each time by the opposition parties, which argued that the legislation would violate the Constitution and possibly lead to the revival of prewar militarism.

The Class-A war criminals were enshrined in the late 1970s.



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