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Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006

Give Yasukuni a miss: New Komeito

Ota of LDP's junior partner sends hawkish Abe camp a clear signal


Staff writer

Akihiro Ota, who will become president of New Komeito at the party's Saturday convention, has one piece of advice for the new prime minister: Don't visit Yasukuni Shrine.

News photo
New Komeito acting Secretary General Akihiro Ota poses in front of a poster of party leader Takenori Kanzaki at the Diet building Wednesday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"The prime minister should refrain from visiting Yasukuni, and that is the position New Komeito has consistently taken," Ota, 60, said in an interview with The Japan Times.

For the past seven years, New Komeito, led by Takenori Kanzaki, has been the junior partner with the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition. Under the new prime ministership of LDP President Shinzo Abe, the two parties reconfirmed their continued alliance.

However, Abe's hawkish views and his quest to amend the Constitution's war-renouncing clause are likely to clash with those of New Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist organization and a staunch advocate of peace.

One major policy difference expected to emerge is over Yasukuni Shrine, where not only the war dead but also 14 Class-A war criminals are honored. Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, made annual visits to the shrine, provoking outrage from China and South Korea. Abe has also often visited the shrine and is equivocal now about whether he will go as prime minister.

New Komeito's role in the coalition is to step on both "the accelerator and the brakes," acting Secretary General Ota said.

"(We) must step on the accelerator for structural reforms . . . but when the LDP goes too far, we need to (say) wait a minute" and hit the brakes, he said. Although Abe has not clearly stated if he will visit the shrine again, he did go to in April while serving as chief Cabinet secretary, a trip that was only revealed by the media recently.

Ota counts himself among advocates of establishing a national memorial to the war dead that is "religiously neutral," something akin to Okinawa's Cornerstone of Peace, which is dedicated to all the lives lost during the Battle of Okinawa.

The Cornerstone of Peace is nonreligious, and Ota stressed that he wants a similar memorial that people of any or no religion can "pay tribute to the memory of the war dead and pray for peace in a religiously neutral manner."

Another key bone of contention is whether Japan will engage in collective defense.

Under Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan can only use force in self-defense, and actions by the military are strictly curtailed. But Abe has indicated that Japan should exercise collective defense, either by revising the Constitution or changing the way it's interpreted.

"New Komeito has and will continue to stand by the official government interpretation of Article 9 -- no collective defense," Ota said. "Therefore, even in the debate over (revising) the Constitution, (we) adhere to Clauses 1 and 2 of Article 9."

The first clause reads, "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." The second clause reads: "To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

Ota, however, hinted that it is possible to make additions to Article 9 regarding the status of the Self-Defense Forces, which are in fact maintained ground, naval and air forces, and ways the SDF and Japan in general can contribute to the international society.

The debate over amending Article 9 "is not something that will happen in the next two years. I believe it will be a bit further down the line," Ota said. "I think that (we) will reach a conclusion naturally after considering the situation of Japan at that time" and the future the nation is headed toward.

In the past seven years, there were times when New Komeito faced criticism from its supporters as well as the public for not reining in the LDP.

Ota admitted the public should have been better informed about Japan's participation in the war in Iraq and the SDF's humanitarian relief operations, for example.

He pointed out that New Komeito sent Kanzaki to the United States in early March 2003 in a bid to persuade the U.S. and its allies from invading Iraq. Kanzaki met with State Department officials and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The war started that March 20 and SDF troops were deployed to Iraq in January the following year on a humanitarian mission.

Asked how New Komeito supporters felt about the SDF operation in Iraq, Ota said there was a misunderstanding.

"The SDF did not go to war. It (went to assist in) humanitarian relief activities, and members of Soka Gakkai and party supporters were strongly behind the operation," he figured.

Still, Ota anticipates there will be times when his party will need to make a stand and put the brakes on the LDP.

"We will continue to state our opinion," Ota said, noting his party will sit down with the LDP if their views diverge too far so they can iron out their differences.



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