John Casey: Mr Koizumi was right to visit this infamous shrine

'His view was forthright: "It's to show our grandsons that their grandsires did not die like dogs, but proudly, for their nation" '
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So the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, did visit the Yasukuni Shrine, the greatest centre of Japanese nationalism. By going there a couple of days before the solemn commemoration of his country's surrender on 15 August 1945, he managed to leave open the question whether or not it was an official visit. In pledging that Japan would never again engage on a war of conquest, he somewhat placated his domestic critics. But the inevitable protests by China and Korea were not likely to be stilled. As news of the visit spread, 20 South Korean men chopped off their little fingers, while Chinese students called for a boycott of Japanese goods.

True, Japanese leaders sometimes ignore the protests, choosing to keep nationalist sentiment at home sweet, rather than to defer to the protests the Asian victims of past Japanese wars. The grievances, though justified, are so unassuageable that not a few Japanese are sick of hearing them. The nationalist-minded former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, visited officially in 1985. The Showa Emperor (Hirohito) went there eight times after the war.

As the place where the souls of 2,640,000 who died fighting for Japan are enshrined, the Yasukuni is the Cenotaph and Westminster Abbey rolled into one. It also has something of the role of our Meteorological Office. In the spring the cherry blossoms at the shrine are examined daily and only when it has been decided they have reached the requisite degree of maturity does "Cherry Blossom Viewing Time", the national picnic season, open officially in Japan. The Yasukuni is also one of only two places where you can see a one-man midget submarine of the sort that penetrated the defences of Sydney harbour during the war ­ the other being in Canberra.

Before the war, Japanese schoolchildren were all indoctrinated with the tenets of State Shinto (abolished by the Americans after 1945) ­ a sort of political-civic version of the ancient folk-religion of Shinto, which was used to instil emperor worship, patriotism and eventually extreme racial nationalism. The children ­ including Roman Catholics and Protestants ­ were compelled to make annual visits to the shrine to attest and reinforce their loyalty. The Yasukuni and its rituals were certainly implicated in the chauvinist and war-like frenzy that overtook the country in the 1930s.

The shrine is always thronged with military veterans. The Japanese are a long-lived race and whenever I was there I saw plenty of grizzled survivors of the war, and probably of the fighting in China and Manchuria as well. They were mostly short, barrel-chested, tough-looking men of the sort you would not like to see riding in their thousands on bicycles across the causeway towards you if you were a defender at Singapore in February 1942. They were constantly bowing to each other, each modulating his bow perfectly in response to the previous military rank of the other.

In 1995 ­ the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war ­ the shrine was especially frequented, and the veterans' ceremonies were accompanied with intense, tearful emotion.

Should Mr Koizumi ­ the reformist Prime Minister, object of unprecedented pop-star adulation by the younger generation and by Japanese housewives ­ have revived old memories by going to the Yasukuni? One thing we had better remember is that Mr Koizumi's proposed "reforms" are aimed not only at reviving the moribund economy. They also include removing the famous article nine of the constitution by which Japan agreed to "renounce war for ever as a sovereign right of the nation".

Mr Koizumi also has it in mind to restore the Emperor to the official position of head of state ­ from which the American-imposed constitution removed him, defining him merely as a "symbol" of Japanese unity. Who knows? Perhaps Mr Koizumi dreams of bringing back the majestic opening sentence of the old Meiji Constitution: "Japan is a nation reigned and ruled over by a line of emperors stretching from ages eternal."

Yet if no prime minister ­ and no emperor ­ is to be allowed to pay his respects at the Yasukuni, it means that the Japanese are forbidden officially to honour their dead. It is even more than that. The millions of spirits enshrined at the Yasukuni are reckoned actually to live there ­ offerings of food and drink are duly left out for them every day.

And when a head of government ­ more especially an emperor ­ visits the shrine, he is taken to be doing something more solemn than just commemorating the dead. He is reporting to the ancestors ­ those spirits that come back to visit their descendants at the yearly Bon Festival, which also takes place around this time. In the past an emperor reported on victories and defeats. In ancestor-worshipping societies, to lose touch with the ancestors would be grossly impious.

I was once received by the Priest of the Yasukuni, Mr Matsudaira. A tall, aristocratically elegant man in full traditional Japanese dress, he was kin of the Tokugawa shoguns who ruled Japan until 1858 and had isolated the country from the rest of the world for more than 200 years. He was one of the last Japanese to be brought up in the household of a daimyo (feudal lord). He had served in the imperial army and navy, and was proud of the fact.

Mr Matsudaira's view of the Yasukuni was forthright: "It is to show our grandsons that their grandsires did not die like dogs but proudly, for their country." He explained to me his exact beliefs about how the spirits live in their shrines: "In my personal shrine is a box which must never be opened before I die. In the box is a holy mirror, which will contain my soul after death. Before I am cremated there will be a ritual to transplant my spirit into a small white wooden plate. On the hundredth day my spirit will be transplanted to the shrine and the plate will be burned."

Mr Matsudaira then invited me into the inner recesses of the shrine where, accompanied by two female shamans, we purified our hands with water, drank ritual sake, and he eventually invited me to bow before the sacred mirror. I knew that the enshrined millions included Tojo and other war criminals ­ as well as the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasake. But I bowed.

This typifies the problem. Which Japan is the present generation to remember? The old Japan, where the emperor lived an obscure, scholarly life in Kyoto, leaving government to an equally pacifist shogun in Edo (Tokyo) ­ or the Japan of the militarists that perished in 1945? Many Japanese feel that in honouring their dead and their past, they are inevitably implicated in the horrors of the war and of the Japanese adventure on the mainland of Asia. You can be a reactionary nationalist, regretting the loss of the Japanese empire, or you can be a left-wing pacifist. What seems impossible is to be a conservative patriot.

When I set out to discover conservative Japanese patriots, I found myself plunged into a marginal world of senior officers of the imperial army, emperor worshippers to a man, with no regrets about the past. One of them, who had served in China and Manchuria, told me that it was "my boys" who were first into Nanking, that the Nanking massacre (in which more than 100,000 were murdered) had never happened, and that he was proud that his own best friend had murdered an insufficiently war-like prime minister in 1932.

The Germans, at a pinch, have absolutely to disavow only 12 years of their own history. If the Japanese are to reject all the Yasukuni Shrine stands for, they must disavow most of what has gone into the creation of modern Japan since the Meiji Restoration of 1858. Whatever the elements of evil there are in that history, they still have the right to honour their dead. I think Mr Koizumi was right to make himself known to the ancestors, if only to report on his astonishing victory in the recent elections.

The writer is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge