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War shrine colors Japan's election

Published August 13, 2006

TOKYO - 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 United States, 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 could rise sharply this week if Koizumi follows through on a pledge to pray there 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 led 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.

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 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.

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 and stayed out of the inner shrine in a nod to the constitutional separation of state and religion.

The shrine issue is figuring in the race to succeed Koizumi when he steps down next month.

The front-runner, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, says he supports prime ministers visiting Yasukuni. His rival, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, is more circumspect. He wants to transfer control of the shrine to the state, and then have Parliament decide who should be honored there.

The shrine's critics say it represents the martial spirit that 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.

[Last modified August 13, 2006, 02:33:52]

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