The same day that he declared his candidacy for LDP president (and presumably prime minister) Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro said he would work to improve ties with China and South Korea if he becomes prime minister. Aso is viewed as a long-shot candidate in the Sept. 20 election, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo the presumptive winner.
“Having no meetings between leaders at all is a distorted form of diplomacy and we must correct this,” Aso said, according to Reuters. Aso has been more flexible than Abe on the Yasukuni Shrine question. He has even proposed that the shrine be re-nationalized as a secular war memorial. Some have remarked that the proposal is insane, but to my mind, Aso has apparently been relatively shrewd in his handling of the Yasukuni issue. By renationalizing the shrine, the government would wrest control of the symbolic site from the private Shinto authorities who enshrined the war criminals in the first place and currently administer the controversial Yushukan war museum.
Meanwhile, Aso struck a familiar nationalist note when announcing his proposal, saying “the tens of thousands of soldiers who died crying ‘Long Life to the Emperor’ filled those words with deep emotion, so I strongly pray that the emperor can visit Yasukuni.” This last statement is no personal sentiment. The special status of Yasukuni Shrine as the place where the emperor, who was at the time considered holy, prayed for war dead was fundamental to its rise in importance during what Japan called the Greater East Asian War. When the Meiji authorities built the shrine on Kudan Hill, across the street from the imperial palace grounds, proximity to the emperor was key.
By taking control away from the Shinto authorities and at the same time encouraging an emperor’s visit, Aso might be appealing to both sides of the Yasukuni debate. Abe appeals only to the nationalists on the issue.
But there is still no indication that disenshrining the war criminals is possible, and even before he introduced this new plan, Aso was agitating for Emperor Akihito to visit the shrine. If Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine after it was tarnished by the war criminals (as was recently confirmed by newly available documents), why would Akihito reverse this decision?