Hirohito revives Japan's shrine row from beyond grave

David McNeill
Friday 21 July 2006 00:00

The bitter debate over the annual pilgrimage of Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial has been given a new twist by a beyond-the-grave intervention from an unusual critic: Emperor Hirohito.

A memo has been found claiming the wartime ruler expressed "strong displeasure"at Yasukuni enshrining 14 Class-A war criminals in 1978, and refused to visit the memorial, which also honours 2.5 million war dead, until his death a decade later.

Written by a former grand steward of the Imperial House, the memo ends the 30-year mystery about why Japan's wartime monarch abruptly stopped going, and is a severe embarrassment to Mr Koizumi, who has gone every year since taking office in 2001.

Asked if the memo would change his views, Mr Koizumi said: "No, it will not." He called the visits "an issue of the heart", adding: "Everybody should be free to decide by themselves on such matters."

But proof that the monarch in whose name millions of Japanese fought in the Second World War staunchly opposed official trips to the Tokyo shrine will put intense pressure on Mr Koizumi to call off a final, politically explosive visit before he leaves office in September.

Nationalist supporters want him to go to the shrine on 15 August, the anniversary of Japan's surrender, fulfilling an election pledge made five years ago and laying the groundwork for regular prime ministerial visits by his successor.

Now the 10 sq-km plot of hallowed ground in the city centre is shaping up as the key political issue in the election to replace Mr Koizumi.

China and South Korea, which consider the shrine a memorial to Japan's unrepentant militarism, bitterly criticise the annual pilgrimages and have called off high-level political exchanges with Tokyo until the issue is resolved.

The two governments say the origins of the dispute date from the secret decision by Yasukuni's Shinto priests to enshrine Japan's wartime leaders, including the notorious General Hideki Tojo.

The man most widely tipped to take over the country's top political job, Shinzo Abe, pointedly refused to say what he would do if elected, but the government's hawkish cabinet secretary is a well-known supporter of Mr Koizumi's visits.

"I will continue to respect and pray for those who fought for Japan," said Mr Abe, without saying where.

Some commentators believe the timing of the memo's release - in the conservative business daily Nikkei Shinbun - was no coincidence. "Rumours of this memo have been around for some time, so why now?" asked Tetsuro Kato, a professor of politics at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University.

"It's possible that some in the business world are so worried about ties with the rest of Asia that they released it to sabotage the election of Mr Koizumi's successor."

Emperor Hirohito visited the shrine eight times after the war but abruptly stopped in the 1970s for reasons that had been a mystery to the outside world. His son, the present Emperor Akihiko, has never gone to Yasukuni despite political pressure. It is widely believed that he too opposes the enshrinement of the men who led the war.

Opponents of the annual visits said the memo proved the Prime Minister was on weak political ground. "The issue will never be settled until the Class-A war criminals are moved or until we have an alternative shrine," said Taku Yamasaki, a former vice-president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The memo was in a collection of notebooks by grand steward Tomohiko Tomita, who died three years ago. He was a close confidante of the late emperor and an impeccable source, said Professor Kato. "There is no doubt this makes life difficult for the Prime Minister because people will say, 'Look, the Emperor was against visits so how can you go?' This does Mr Koizumi a lot of damage."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in