Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit Yasukuni Shrine during its Oct. 17-20 autumn festival.
Abe decided against going to the Shinto shrine in Tokyo because he was concerned about triggering a diplomatic backlash and wanted to focus on the search for survivors from landslides on Izu-Oshima island caused by the recent typhoon. It was a reasonable decision.
However, Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs and communications, and 157 members of both Diet houses who belong to a supra-partisan group called Minnade Yasukuni Jinja ni Sanpaisuru Kokkaigiin no Kai (Group of Diet members who visit Yasukuni Shrine together) made calls to the shrine as of Oct. 18.
Abe has refrained from visiting the shrine since he took office in December, but it has become customary for certain ministers do so on certain occasions.
It is an extraordinary state of affairs that whether the prime minister and other members of the Cabinet go to Yasukuni attracts attention both at home and abroad every time the religious institution’s festival or an anniversary of the end of World War II comes around.
Abe apparently still hopes to visit the war-related shrine during his tenure, but we would like to see him direct his attention to establishing a new way to pay a tribute to the war dead that allows Japanese to remember them quietly and comfortably and does not cause diplomatic friction.
We cannot support visits to the shrine by the prime minister or other political leaders.
Yasukuni Shrine was the core institution for Japan’s wartime "State Shinto" that worshiped as deities soldiers and civilians in the military service who had died.
After the end of the war, the shrine was reborn as a religious corporation. But it became a politically controversial institution when 14 Class-A war criminals were enshrined there along with ordinary war dead. The move could lead to the denial of their responsibility for the war.
A visit to Yasukuni by a government leader could be regarded as a violation of the principle of the separation of religion and politics. It can also be seen as a gesture to show a leader's endorsement of Yasukuni's views about history.
A political leader's pilgrimage to the shrine is different in nature from visits by ordinary citizens to pay tribute to relatives killed in battlefields.
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came to Japan recently, they offered flowers at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. It was the first time that top U.S. administration officials made a floral tribute at the cemetery.
The Chidorigafuchi cemetery is a national facility dedicated to some 360,000 unknown soldiers and other war victims who died overseas.
When it was founded in 1959, some people called for making the cemetery a facility symbolizing all the war dead. But the proposal was not adopted on grounds that such a facility would undermine the value of Yasukuni Shrine.
Because of this historical background, few high-ranking foreign government officials have visited Chidorigafuchi.
Although the intentions of Kerry and Hagel in visiting the cemetery are unclear, their action at least showed one option as a war memorial that foreign dignitaries can visit.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid multiple visits to Yasukuni Shrine, starting in 2001, provoking harsh criticism from China and South Korea. During his tenure, various proposals to avoid straining Japan's ties with these countries were discussed, including the establishment of a new national war memorial and expansion of the Chidorigafuchi cemetery.
But lawmakers both within and outside his Liberal Democratic Party voiced strong opposition to these ideas, causing the debate to die down.
But a government advisory council on the issue made a valuable proposal in 2002 when it called for building a new facility to signal Japan's determination to promote peace in the 21st century to both domestic and international audiences. The proposal is still quite relevant.
Nearly 70 years have passed since the end of the war. The government should revive the debate of the proposal to consider new ways to commemorate the war dead.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 19
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