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Historical obstacle

Publication Date : 20-10-2012


Pictures of Japanese ministers and politicians visiting a war shrine in Tokyo this week remind us again of the deep-seated historical obstacle to building a friendly partnership among Northeast Asian neighbours whose ties have already been frayed over rekindled territorial disputes.

Two cabinet members and 67 parliamentarians paid respects at Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million war dead including 14 convicted Class A war criminals from World War II, Thursday, a day after opposition party leader Shinzo Abe visited it. On August 15, two ministers joined dozens of lawmakers in paying homage to the controversial sanctuary for the first time since the coalition government led by the Democratic Party of Japan took office in 2009.

The string of visits comes against the backdrop of mounting nationalistic sentiment in Japan, which has been fuelled by its territorial disputes with China and South Korea over different sets of islands. In the run up to the next parliamentary election set to be held by next summer, Japanese politicians will be more tempted into riding on the right-wing tide, risking the danger of exacerbating the already strained ties with its neighbouring countries.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has so far stayed away from the shrine and previously told his cabinet to do the same. His administration sought to distance itself from Thursday’s visit, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura saying “a visit in a private capacity is a matter of the personal belief of individuals.”

But diplomatic observers here note the repeated visits to the shrine by his cabinet members could not have come without his tacit approval. The focus of attention ― and concern ― was put on Wednesday’s visit by Abe who is well placed to become Japan’s next prime minister as his Liberal Democratic Party has been far ahead of the ruling DPJ and other parties in recent opinion polls.

Abe equivocated in answering a question on whether he would visit the shrine if elected prime minister. In a meeting with party officials last month, however, he expressed “painful” regret over his failure to do so during his short-lived premiership in 2007.

This time too, Seoul and Beijing poured a blast of condemnation over the shrine visits, which they said were irresponsible acts disregarding the sentiment of the neighbouring countries that suffered from its past militarism. Such response should be taken as an indication of the serious consequences Tokyo’s misstep regarding historical issues could have on its neighbourly relations. What Japanese leaders should know is that the issue of Yasukuni visit is regarded by their neighbours as a barometer of whether they can face up to historical truth.


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