04/10/2006, 00.00
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Yasukuni still blocking reconciliation between Japan and China

by Pino Cazzaniga

A proposal by Japan's leader of the Opposition, to remove war criminals from the shrine, appears to be a response to Hu Jintao's declaration against Koizumi's visits, which have dashed reconciliation hopes.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – A proposal to remove from Yasukuni shrine 14 "Grade A" war criminals, whose presence there is fiercely contested by China and Korea, was mooted by the head of Japan's main opposition party yesterday. The suggestion of Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party, came a few days after a statement made by Hu Jintao about the visits of the Japanese prime minister, Koizumi, to Yasukuni. The words of the Chinese president sparked reactions in Tokyo and dashed hopes of imminent reconciliation.

On 31 March, a Japanese delegation of representatives of seven groups "friendly to China" was welcomed by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in the Great Hall of the Palace of the people in Beijing. The standing of the host, the venue of the meeting and its duration (90 minutes) are an indication of the importance it was accorded, not least because the Japanese group was led by Ryutaro Hashimoto, prime minister before Junichiro Koizumi.

The meeting was, without a doubt, the most important event in more than a year regarding prospects of thawing relations between the two nations. Diplomats of many nations of Asia and the United States were looking on eagerly.

But despite the cordial atmosphere that marked the beginning of the meeting, it failed to be up to expectations.

Responsibility for this failure lies in the speech given by the Chinese president, intended by those who put it together to be directed at the Japanese people. However, it turned out to be an oration against Koizumi. Its content can be summed up in three points. First of all, Hu Jintao recognized that ties between China and Japan are of the greatest importance for the development of both peoples and for peace in Asia. For this reason, it was his wish to improve them. In the second place, he gave assurance that China had no intention of posing a military threat to other nations and did not strive for economic hegemony because, he said, "it was still a developing country". Finally, turning to the topic of top-level meetings that have been stalled for five years, he said:  "We are ready to take them up at any time on condition that, from now on, the Japanese premier (current and future) will no longer visit the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are also revered."

This phrase ruined the atmosphere of the meeting, not least because any direct reference to Yasukuni and to war criminals had been excluded beforehand, and shortly before taking off, some members of the delegation went to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo to ask that they drop such references. Hu Jintao, however, mentioned it explicitly. The Japanese interpreted the conditional offer as insupportable interference in their nation's internal affairs and the government's negative reactions were immediately forthcoming. The External Affairs minister, Taro Aso, denounced China's seriously inappropriate diplomatic move: "Their methods are incomprehensible. I maintain that the leaders of both countries should meet to resolve problems and solutions should not be imposed before talks". He did not hold back from pointing a finger at China as a military threat.

The chairman of the Association of Industrialists, Kakutaro Kitashiro, who is pro-Chinese, said: "A comment like this risks making visits to Yasukuni shrine a political matter. Japanese public opinion will take such a turn that it will be impossible for politicians to stop visits to the controversial shrine."

However, it seems that the risk taken by the Chinese president was calculated. Analysts said his undeclared, but nonetheless substantial, reasons, were two. Above all, Hu knew that not only one people but two were listening to his speech: the Japanese and his own. Mindful of widespread anti-Japanese popular demonstrations last year, he could not give the impression of undermining the feelings they expressed. Besides, knowing that Koizumi is set to leave his post in September, it seems as if he was trying to indirectly influence the choice of his successor and the related foreign affairs programme.

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See also
Yasukuni could sink Koizumi's speech to US Congress
China and Japan seek rapprochement
Lowest point in Sino-Japanese relations since 1972
Beijing and Seoul protest Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni temple
Yasukuni visit, a few hours after meeting between Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping


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