Koizumi's dangerous determination

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2005, 12:00am

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his fifth visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. There was the predictable response from other Asian nations, but it is clear that those protests fell on deaf ears.

If his determination is plain, so too are the consequences, and they have become the real issue in the debate over Yasukuni: Tokyo's readiness to ignore the concerns of its neighbours and to stoke tensions undermine its efforts to play a leading role in the region. This risks isolation and threatens to undo the gains made in recent years.

Mr Koizumi pledged when running for the Liberal Democratic Party's presidency - the post that allows him to become prime minister - that he would visit the shrine every year. He has done so, determined to keep a promise to constituents, but also to honour the country's war dead, reinvigorate and legitimate healthy patriotism in Japan, underscore his government's commitment to peace, and push his country closer to 'normality' in international relations.

Wary of the protests that followed previous visits, this year's trip was toned down, but it failed to dampen controversy. China reacted with predictable vitriol, and senior-level meetings between the two countries were cancelled, as was a visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura to discuss the oil-field dispute in the South China Sea.

Significantly, even Southeast Asians have been disturbed by the visit. Singapore's Straits Times, in an editorial, said that the visit showed Japan 'clearly does not value' relations with neighbouring countries as much as 'dogged loyalty to a personal ritual'.

That is the most important point. The determination to play to domestic audiences has a high and rising international price: it isolates Japan within the region and forfeits Tokyo's claim to a leading role in Asia. Mr Koizumi's response when questioned in the Diet - that 'Japan-China relations should not be defined solely by the Yasukuni issue' - was glib. It's right, but irrelevant.

Cancelled visits and meetings make it hard, if not impossible, for Tokyo to protect its national interests. Japan's indifference to foreign sentiment makes it harder for other countries, such as China, to compromise on key disputes such as territorial disputes. The visit plainly undermines the country's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Isolated within the region, Tokyo is pushed closer to the United States. But there is a real risk that US 'support' might one day be seen as 'indulgence'. Tokyo's behaviour could be seen as heightening tension in the region, and the US could be blamed for encouraging it.

In this context, the continuing six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme is an important test, as is the upcoming World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in December: Japan's reluctance to embrace agricultural reform - always a tough issue - is likely to irritate the US.

It is time for Mr Koizumi to be concerned about Japan's standing in the region. A compromise on Yasukuni would not undermine his larger mission: rehabilitating Japan in the eyes of the world. A stubborn determination to visit the shrine, consequences be damned, does.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank