TOKYO -- When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sat down with me at his official residence last Thursday, three days had passed since his surprise visit to a Shinto shrine honoring 2.5 million war dead, including 14 "Class A" war criminals from World War II. Some victors of that war, especially China, were outraged (but not the U.S. government). The Japanese leader was unruffled. "I find it difficult to understand why I shouldn't be doing that," Koizumi told me.
China found it easy to understand, canceling bilateral foreign ministerial talks (a step soon followed by South Korea). Koizumi, fresh from an unexpected landslide election victory, fired back in his interview with me in what sounded like penetrating sarcasm. While dismissing his shrine visit as no "major issue" in the long run, he said: "I understand because of the war 60 years ago" that the Chinese "feel Japan is a threat. So, I understand that they want to contain Japan. I think to advance this perception of Japan as a rival and to create a sense of 'anti-Japan' in China would be advantageous to the Chinese leadership."
For the first time, China and Japan are great powers at the same time and eye each other with foreboding -- 127 million Japanese worried about 1.3 billion Chinese. To Japanese diplomats, Chinese outrage over the shrine visit is just Beijing playing its "Japan card." For seven years, Japan has dismissed Chinese demands for apologies about World War II as a power play for dominance in East Asia.
The attitude by ordinary Japanese may be reflected by the colorful Shintaro Ishihara, governor of the Tokyo prefecture. Over dinner with me, he worried about Chinese advancement in long-range missiles and nuclear submarines threatening the U.S. protective shield around Japan.
When I asked senior Japanese officials, they chuckled about the outspoken Ishihara but did not dispute him. They noted theories, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, that China is preparing either to push the Americans out of Asia or just overwhelm Taiwan. The prime minister was apprehensive. "We have to be careful about China's military buildup," Koizumi said, adding, "it has to be made more transparent than it is."
That was the background last week when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suddenly got word that the prime minister would visit the Yasukuni Shrine that very day. It surprised nobody, including U.S. Ambassador Tom Schieffer. Koizumi paid his last promised annual visit there 22 months ago, and he prides himself on keeping campaign pledges.
The shrine's big problem is the inclusion in 1978 of the war criminals, including executed wartime leader Gen. Hideki Tojo. But Yasukuni's adjoining war museum, run by the shrine's staff, bothers even such friendly Americans as Schieffer. I visited it and found an alternative view of history that Japan was forced into invading China and bombing Pearl Harbor and is credited with liberating Asia from European colonialists. It is history written by the losers, but seems irrelevant to the issues of 2005.
Koizumi rejects the danger of "militarism" in a Japan that has been a "pacifist state" and has not fired a shot in 60 years. The prime minister did not mention the arch-militarist Tojo by name, but that was what he had in mind when he told me: "I'm not visiting the shrine to pay respects or homage to any particular individual. Rather, I go there to pay respect to millions of people who lost their lives in the war."
Chinese who visit Japan "will find out for themselves there is no militarism in this country," the prime minister said. But "because of years of education in China, there is a strong perception in China that the regime of 60 years ago still exists, that Japan must be hostile to China. That is far from reality."
In the opinion of U.S. policymakers, it will remain far from reality so long as the United States lines up with Japan against China in Asia. Washington's nightmare is for Tokyo to decide it must rearm for protection because it no longer trusts the Americans. That is reason enough for the Bush administration not to get excited about the visit to the Shinto shrine.