updated 8/12/2006 6:02:32 PM ET 2006-08-12T22:02:32

Its name means “peaceful nation,” but the Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead generates a lot of rage. Asian neighbors attack it as a promoter of militarism, Japanese have filed a slew of lawsuits against official visits there, and the U.S., Japan’s main ally, finds its take on history disturbing.

Now it is becoming an issue in the race to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister, and the heat level may rise sharply this week if Koizumi follows through on a pledge to pray there next week on Tuesday’s anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender.

Protesters marched for a second straight day Saturday to rally against the shrine, demonstrating building emotions ahead of the anniversary.

Koizumi has gone to the shrine five times since taking office in 2001, but never on the emotionally charged date of Aug. 15.

Each visit has set off rumbles among Japan’s neighbors, especially China and Korea, which bore the brunt of 20th century Japanese aggression and colonization. The reason: the 2.5 million war dead commemorated at Yasukuni include the soldiers who fought in these wars, as well as seven executed war criminals who designed and executed Japan’s imperialist conquests.

While Japan after World War II swore off war and embraced a pacifist constitution, Yasukuni never abandoned the idea that the country was waging a bold struggle for Asia against Western imperialism.

“There is no uncertainty in history. Japan’s dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia,” the shrine declares on its Web page.

Tired of war guilt
While Yasukuni has long been the redoubt of aging war veterans, crusty militarists and ultra-rightists, its priests are now actively recruiting support among the young, many of whom are tired of bearing the war guilt of their grandfathers.

With controversy has come a big increase in visits to the shrine, built 137 years ago to promote imperialism and glorify death in battle and managed by the military through the war’s end.

It logged a postwar record 205,000 visitors praying for the war dead on Aug. 15 alone last year. Attendance at the shrine’s war museum — which depicts Tokyo’s military conquest of Asia as a noble enterprise — also doubled in 2005 from the previous year to 360,000.

Visitors can enter through an 83-foot high arch of steel and walk up to a wooden worship hall to pray. Ledgers that record the 2.5 million names of the dead, including the war criminals, are kept inside the main hall behind it but not for public viewing.

A neutral visit
Koizumi’s visit last year was carefully calibrated to fend off the constitutionality question. Unlike his past four trips, he wore a suit rather than traditional Japanese dress or a tuxedo, threw coins in a donation box and stayed out of the inner shrine in a probable nod to the constitutional separation of state and religion.

Still, Yasukuni and other issues have brought relations with China and South Korea to a postwar low. Neither will hold summits with Koizumi, and both are urging his successor to shun the shrine. The U.S. is in a bind: It welcomes Koizumi’s moves to make Japan a bigger military force in the region, but can’t ignore the weight of the past. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer says the shrine’s museum — many of those names are of soldiers who killed Americans — is “very disturbing.”

“The Yasukuni issue goes right into the heart of Japan’s refusal to accept the responsibility for Japanese actions,” said Phil Dean, professor of international affairs at Temple University Japan Campus.

Japanese divided
Koizumi, who was only three when World War II ended, says he visits Yasukuni to pray for peace and to honor the fallen soldiers, brushing off the shrine’s darker historical baggage.

But it’s hard to avoid; the shrine issue splits Japanese opinion down the middle, and is figuring in the race to succeed Koizumi when he steps down next month.

The front-runner and hawkish heir apparent, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, says he supports prime ministers visiting Yasukuni, and has not denied reports that he made his own secret pilgrimage there in April. His rival, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, is more circumspect. He wants to transfer control of the shrine from its Shinto priests to the state, and then have Parliament decide who should be honored there.

The shrine’s critics say it represents the martial spirit that ultimately brought atomic bombs down on two Japanese cities and visits by Japan’s leader violates the constitutional division of religion and state. Defenders say Yasukuni redresses history books that unjustly paint Japan as the villain and ignore the imperialism of Europe and the United States. Criticizing the shrine is meddling with Japan’s internal affairs, they say.

Kosuke Sugiya, a 25-year-old restaurant worker, said he came to Yasukuni to pray for the dead and was thinking of the kamikaze pilots listed among them.

“What if I were told to pilot a suicide jet and die today? I don’t have the courage to die,” he said. “Those honored here fought for our nation, and we should all pay respect to them regardless of what caused the war.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments