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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006

'Stubborn maverick' makes good on promise


Staff writer

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday took his last opportunity while in office to visit Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of Japan's wartime surrender, finally following through on a campaign pledge he made before his April 2001 inauguration to break the diplomatic taboo by making the contentious trip.

News photo
Men dressed in wartime military uniforms play bugles at Yasukuni Shrine to pay respects to the nation's war dead Tuesday, the 61st anniversary of the day Japan surrendered. AP PHOTO

By ignoring criticism both at home and abroad, Koizumi probably wanted to defend his "stubborn maverick" image -- a key component of his popularity -- and pay no heed to the impact his visit to the war-related shrine has on Japan's ties with China and South Korea, observers said.

"Koizumi is a politician who has pushed up his support rate (in media polls) by backing up his words," said Koichi Kato, a Lower House lawmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who was once a close friend of Koizumi. "I think he put great weight on his election promise (to visit Yasukuni) on that specific date."

China had long anticipated that Koizumi, who leaves office next month, would visit Yasukuni on Tuesday and had already shifted attention to his probable successor: the hawkish conservative Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the observers said.

"(China) had already expected (Koizumi) would go on Aug. 15," said Tomoyuki Kojima, a Keio University professor and China expert. Recently, Beijing has sent repeated diplomatic signals that China wants to improve ties with Japan, which is considered a key business partner that can help stabilize its economy, Yasukuni notwithstanding, Kojima added.

"They will criticize (Koizumi) with strong words, but it's not clear if they will take specific action" in response to his latest Yasukuni visit, Kojima said.

Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni have drawn criticism both at home and abroad because it honors -- alongside the country's 2.47 million war dead -- several Class-A war criminals held accountable for wartime misdeeds during the 1930s and '40s.

When elected LDP president in April 2001, Koizumi pledged to visit the shrine on the anniversary of the end of World War II in an apparent bid to gain votes of veterans and relatives of the war dead.

But faced with growing criticism, Koizumi avoided going on Aug. 15, and instead went to the shrine once a year on a different day over the past six years.

But in a January 2003 Diet session, he incurred the wrath of the media and opposition lawmakers by saying, "breaking election promises of this importance is not a big deal." He was branded as inconsistent and insincere.

Sources said Koizumi deeply regretted this slip of tongue, and this made visiting the shrine on Aug. 15 a matter of saving face.

Recently, Koizumi has reacted emotionally to repeated criticism from China and South Korea, as well as domestic critics.

"Whenever I go, you (reporters) will criticize me anyway. It would be the same whenever I go (to Yasukuni)," said Koizumi, visibly irritated, on TV.

He also wrote in his weekly news e-mail dated Aug. 5: "As for the opinions of the mass media commentators and intellectuals who criticize me, I cannot help but think that in essence, they add up to the contention that I should stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine because China opposes such visits.

"Or in other words, it is better not to do things that China does not like," he continued.

Conservatives have praised Koizumi for not bowing to pressure from China, which they say is trying to use history issues related to Japan's past aggression as a diplomatic tool to criticize Tokyo whenever it is convenient -- even 61 years after the war.

But Keio University's Kojima argued that the adverse effects Koizumi's Yasukuni visits could have on Sino-Japanese relations and regional stability are more serious than any apparent benefit from his stubborn stance.

"As was the case with Japan's (failed) bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Japan cannot achieve many of its diplomatic goals without sound negotiations with China," Kojima said.

Abe, the front-runner to replace Koizumi in the Sept. 20 LDP presidential poll, should have well realized this point, too, Kojima added.

Now many people are worried that if Abe becomes the prime minister as expected, he could further strain relations with China and South Korea.

But Kojima does not buy that simple scenario, suggesting Abe is trying to walk a fine line between appealing to conservatives and not infuriating Japan's neighbors.

Abe, a well-known supporter of Yasukuni, paid a visit in April but never admitted it in public.

By doing so, he has shown supporters in Japan that he didn't bow to pressure from China and South Korea, while avoiding diplomatic friction with China by never admitting it in public, Kojima said.

"As a result, he now has a free hand (in diplomacy) for at least one year" before the end of 2007, if he keeps visiting the shrine once a year as Koizumi did, Kojima said.

"I think he is trying to leave room for negotiations. I don't think he can keep maintaining a hardline stance only, " he said.



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