Photo/IllutrationSanae Takaichi, the internal affairs and communications minister, speaks to reporters on Oct. 18 after visiting Yasukuni Shrine. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Seiichi Eto, a state minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, and Sanae Takaichi, the internal affairs and communications minister, visited Yasukuni Shrine during its ongoing autumn festival.

Eto obtained his first Cabinet portfolio in a Cabinet reshuffle in September, while Takaichi returned to the post she held for about three years through 2017.

The two became the first Cabinet ministers to visit the war-related shrine in Tokyo during its spring or autumn festival or on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, in two and a half years.

Takaichi visited the shrine during its spring festival in April 2017, when she was internal affairs and communications minister.

At a news conference, Eto said, “I offered prayers for those who gave their lives to their country.”

But a Cabinet minister’s visit to the shrine is different in its implications from pilgrimages by families of the war dead or ordinary citizens.

Yasukuni Shrine, where people who died in Japan’s wars during its imperial era are enshrined as deities, was the core facility of the wartime state Shintoism, which formed the spiritual underpinnings of militarism.

After the end of the war, the shrine became a religious corporation like other shrines and temples. But a Japanese political leader’s visit to the shrine can be interpreted as a sign that Japan has forgotten its past mistakes and is trying to justify its behavior before and during the war.

That is why the governments of China and South Korea called the two ministers’ actions “deplorable” and filed protests.

Among those enshrined at Yasukuni are 14 Japanese leaders who were held accountable for the war the nation waged and convicted as Class-A war criminals in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trial.

A Cabinet minister’s visit to the shrine could lead to a denial of the national creed Japan has upheld since it returned to the international community under the Treaty of San Francisco. Japan accepted the rulings handed down in the Tokyo Trial under the treaty, which re-established its relations with the Allied powers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once said he bitterly regretted the fact that he had not visited the shrine during his first tenure in office and made a trip to the shrine on the first anniversary of his return to power at the end of 2013. It was the first visit to the shrine by a Japanese prime minister in seven years since Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine on Aug. 15, 2006.

Abe has refrained from visiting the facility since then and has only offered “masakaki,” a sacred evergreen ritual implement, to the shrine for its spring and autumn festivals.

Abe should have urged his ministers to follow his example and stay away from the shrine.

Both Eto and Takaichi are known as Abe confidants and have a history of visiting the shrine regularly. Their actions can only be seen as gestures to indicate Abe’s real wishes.

Japan’s relationship with South Korea is said to be in the worst shape since the end of the war. Politicians of both countries are required to use their collective wisdom to improve the situation.

Japan’s relationship with China is also in a delicate and sensitive state with Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled to visit Japan next spring as a state guest.

Any action that could cause tension in Japan’s relations with its neighbors only shows a lack of political wisdom.

A visit to Yasukuni Shrine by the prime minister or a Cabinet minister also raises questions concerning the constitutional principle of separation of religion and politics.

Both Eto and Takaichi said they visited the shrine “in a private capacity.” As long as they hold Cabinet posts, however, the line between their public and private function is not clear.

In 2002, when Koizumi was the prime minister, a private advisory panel to then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda compiled a report calling for the establishment of a state-run, non-religious facility for memorial services for the war dead. But no specific policy action was taken in line with the recommendation.

Politicians have a duty to consider a new facility for war memorial services that everyone can visit without feeling hesitation or complicated emotions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 19