Beijing hopes visits to the shrine will be a thing of the past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2006, 12:00am

Despite a harsh reaction to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit yesterday to the Yasukuni Shrine on the 61st anniversary of Japan's surrender in the second world war, analysts say Beijing is already looking past the prime minister in the hope that his successor will be able to improve relations.

Mr Koizumi is likely to be replaced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. Although Mr Abe is a part of the conservative faction of the Liberal Democratic Party, and has taken a hawkish stance on China and North Korea, Beijing is hoping growing public opinion against visits to the shrine and pressure from Japanese business to improve relations will force him to end the controversial visits and pave the way for normalisation of relations.

Jiang Wenran, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, in Canada, said Mr Abe, the grandson of a member of Japan's second world war cabinet, was a staunch nationalist and favoured visits to the shrine.

He said, however, 'the pressure now is enormous' not only from China, South Korea and the United States, but increasingly from the Japanese public.

Public opinion has turned against the visits after it was recently disclosed that Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine when Yasukuni secretly honoured 14 class-A war criminals - including the executed wartime prime minister General Hideki Tojo - in 1978.

According to a poll earlier this month by the Yomiuri newspaper, half of Japanese say the next prime minister should not visit the shrine, while 40 per cent support the visits.

The daily reported that the number of people opposed to the visits rose by 8 percentage points from a survey in June.

Furthermore, 46 per cent of people opposed said that the news that the late Emperor Hirohito had stopped visiting the shrine after it included the names of war criminals had influenced their thinking.

'Public opinion over the Yasukuni Shrine issue is much more divided than it was a year ago,' said Shi Yinhong , professor of international relations at People's University, 'which means the new prime minister may take a more prudent attitude towards this.'

He said there was a growing recognition within Japan that the issue was becoming increasingly unfavourable to Japan.

This may explain why China's response was muted when it was reported recently Mr Abe made a secret visit to the shrine in April.