Waiting for Koizumi

A Look at Japanese Politics

"One more for the road?"

The bartender stood behind the counter, drying the inside of a pint glass with a white towel. Before I had a chance to raise my head from the copper bar top and answer (with the only answer I've ever given to that particular question), the phone rang.

"It's for you," he said and handed me the phone.

I raised the receiver to my ear: "Koizumi is going to Yasukuni Shrine this afternoon - two days early! We can't get scooped by the other media outlets!" It was none other than junior reporter Junko.

"Morning, my dear..." I paused and made an affirmative motion to the bartender. He then retrieved a fresh glass and slowly lowered the tap to begin the process that ends in a pint of Ireland's finest stout.

As she started talking again, I raised my head from the counter and reached for my pack of cigarettes.

"Well of course," I said. "I'm carefully monitoring Koizumi's movements as we speak. Just like I said I would." The bartender cut the tap, allowing the white froth to recede from the rim of the glass so that he may continue in a few moments without injury to the precious deep brown elixir.

She continued, indicating that she wanted to meet at the shrine's front gate in a half hour. For future means of avoidance, I asked how she was able to locate me on this mid-morning.

"I see," I said. "So you created a GIS grid, digitizing the locations of all the pubs in the shrine's vicinity, and then called the one with the shortest radial distance to the front gate." While the bartender slowly pulled down the tap again to cap off the pint, I continued, with the least possible sincerity, "Happy to see that you are putting that new mapping software package I got you to good use."

I put the receiver back in the cradle and lit a cigarette, cursing my selection of birthday presents. The bartender slowly pushed my road companion across the counter.

Since being elected Prime Minister earlier this year, Junichiro Koizumi has maintained that he will pay an official visit to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15th - the date of Japan's surrender in WWII. Like with prime ministers before him, this sort of pledge has raised friction in South Korean, Chinese, and even domestic circles.

The controversy is centered around two basic points: 1) Is Japan reviving nationalistic sensibilities and showing a lack of remorse for its brutal aggression against Asia fifty years ago? 2) Does this violate the separation of religion and state article in Japan's constitution? It all comes down to interpretation. And folks are divided on both.

In Koizumi's favor is the cult-like status he has achieved with the Japanese people. From cell-phone straps to cookies and crackers showing his image - always emphasizing his rolling mane of perfectly-coiffed locks - is everywhere. In fact, it can be safely said that his election victory was the first in history to be aerosol-driven.

The media is mixed. The Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, and Japan Times do not endorse a visit. The Yomiuri Shimbum, however, boldly declares in an editorial that Koizumi "need not think twice about Yasukuni visit." Some agree with the latter.

Yasuo Ohara, a professor at Kokugakuin University, tells the Asahi, "There is no difference whatsoever from (George W.) Bush or (Bill) Clinton visiting Arlington National Cemetery (as U.S. presidents). It is involved, or used in the military or at times of war."

This, however, assumes that Yasukuni is just simply a place to honor Japan's war dead. Many people aren't willing to see it this way because included with the souls of the 2.4 million Japanese military enshrined within Yasukuni are 14 Class A war criminals. Add to this the fact that Yasukuni was used as a rallying point to recruit soldiers for Japan's war effort before and during WWII and an argument opposing a visit on the grounds of a lack of remorse for Japan's militaristic past becomes more clear.

Still, in light of this Koizumi maintains in the Yomiuri, "I wish to pay my respects to the war dead out of my conviction that we should never again cause or take part in a war." Some Japanese don't share his conviction.

"To die for the Emperor was an honor, rewarded by enshrinement as a god at Yasukuni," says Meijo University professor Kiyoshi Haraguchi to the Asahi. "I was a soldier in Manchuria and China during the war and clearly sensed that Yasukuni was made into a spiritual center to drive the minds of the people."

Many Koreans and Chinese that suffered during Japan's wartime past feel the same. The Mainichi reports that Chinese officials feel a visit would "undermine" the friendship between China and lead both China and South Korea to assume an "affirmation" of Japan's wartime atrocities.

Perhaps more complicated though is the separation of religion and state issue. Especially considering what the Yomiuri reports about one such party of the state and its supporting religious organization, "Many members of New Komeito, whose main support base is the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization, have pointed out that Koizumi's worship may violate the constitutional principle of separation of religion and state."

Adding to the contradictions about this contradiction is the about-face given by Koizumi's Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka. Initially, she warned Koizumi against a visit, citing the religion/state conflicts and emphasized in the Yomiuri, "I don't want him to use slippery semantics, such as saying that he will worship as a private person." Later, with her ministry embroiled in a series of scandals, Tanaka found Koizumi's hair gel far too slippery and she has since capitulated. Now she endorses a visit.

During the time period from the election to now, Koizumi has generally managed to skirt the issue by emphasizing his will to institute reforms in Japan's economic structure in an attempt at revitalization. But now it is time to fish or cut bait. Just don't cut the hair.

Yasukuni Shrine occupies a narrow strip of land stretching for the length of a couple city blocks on Yasukuni Street in Tokyo's Kudanshita area. At the front gate I see Junko. Though Koizumi's visit today is two days ahead of schedule, she is not alone.

Other media representation is here: Fuji TV, TV Asahi, CNN, ABC, AP, and others. The protesting Koreans are here. The right-wing Japanese, or uyoku, are here, large buses and speakers at the ready. The police are here. The only missing element is Koizumi. Waiting for Koizumi.

Through the center of the grounds is a walkway formed by granite blocks and lined by a single row of identical stone lantern sculptures. Off the path are some souvenir shops, vending machines, and benches. A large statue of former vice-minister of war Omura Masujiro sits in the middle of the complex. The Wars and Soldiers that Shaped Modern Japan Museum sits tucked next to the shrine's north entrance. The shrine is at the far west near one of shrine's three large torrii, or entry gates.

Knowing Koizumi will drive up rather than walk through the frenzy at the front gate, Junko and I wait at the driveway of the shrine's side entrance to the north with a smattering of fellow media members, half a battalion of police, and some onlookers that one Japanese woman describes as oendan ni narimasu ne (becoming like a cheering section).

"Another five minutes," announces a man standing next to me, monitoring radio broadcasts through a single earpiece.

Ropes delineate areas along the driveway for the media and cheering sections. The police roam free everywhere with the occasional shouts of "Get back!" to overanxious fans stepping onto the driveway.

A suited man, perhaps a government or shrine official, hands out a few hundred paper hinomaru (Japanese flags) and leads the crowd in a cheer celebrating the prime minister's visit:

Koizumi shusho yasukuni jinga sanpai! Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

Behind us, scattered between the shrubbery, sit outdoor displays of decommissioned Japanese bronze cannons, anti-aircraft guns, torpedoes, and bombs.

The crowd dutifully raises their flags with the leader to punctuate each Banzai!

Koizumi's black saloon car then enters the gate and slowly moves up the driveway. He quickly exits the car, flanked by heavy security, and heads for the shrine's entrance. It is a sea of flags, flashbulbs, and cheers. Twenty minutes later, after taking care of business, he's back in the car, accompanied by equal mayhem as before, and out the gate. Hit and run.

Ten days after his visit, I opened a copy of the Asahi while seated at the same barstool. The lead story said that Chinese and South Korean leaders had balked at requests by Koizumi for meetings in which he would explain his actions. This left the Asahi to declare Japan's ties to these two Asian neighbors to be "the lowest ebb in years."

But what it failed to mention, perhaps most importantly, was that Koizumi's hair is still flowing unimpeded. I motioned for the bartender.

Coming next week: an interview with world wrestling champion The Destroyer.

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