TOKYO, April 22 -- Inside the hallowed cedar halls of this city's vast Yasukuni Shrine, 168 Japanese lawmakers and aides gathered on Friday, clapping their hands twice in traditional reverence to the deified souls of Japan's fallen warriors.
Joined by almost 50,000 other citizens who attended the shrine's annual spring celebration this week, many of the nation's top lawmakers bowed and offered Shinto prayers to the divine spirits of the shrine -- including a list of more than 1,000 convicted World War II criminals topped by Japan's wartime prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo.
Japanese officials line up outside the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to honor fallen soldiers, an observance some Asian countries find offensive.
(Koji Sasahara -- AP)
The observance was central to the roiling dispute over history that has engulfed Japan and its primary wartime victims, China and South Korea.
Visitors to Yasukuni are confronted with the exhibit of a reconstructed Zero fighter, which stands in an honored spot inside the shrine's newly expanded museum. Also on exhibit is the gingerly encased military uniform of Hirohito, the wartime emperor. Miniature flags of the Rising Sun can be purchased at the museum gift shop, along with camouflage T-shirts and scale models of the battleship Yamato, sunk by U.S. forces off Okinawa in 1945.
In a museum film, Pearl Harbor is described as a "battle for Japan's survival," while one exhibit blames the 1937 Nanjing Massacre -- in which Chinese officials say Japanese soldiers slaughtered 300,000 people -- on the Chinese leaders who fled the city while ordering their men to fight to the death. After the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese, the museum notes, "the Chinese citizens were once again able to live their lives in peace."
"Individuals and people have their own respective views on history, culture and tradition," said Takao Fuji, an influential lawmaker from Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party who attended the ceremony. "We are worshiping here with a pure heart, and we would like neighboring countries such as China and South Korea to understand that."
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is among an estimated 5 million Japanese who visit Yasukuni Shrine each year.
Despite the reiteration of a broad apology for war crimes by Koizumi at a summit in Jakarta on Friday, critics argue that Japan is not repentant about its wartime deeds. Protests in China and South Korea focused on the Education Ministry's approval this month of revised school textbooks that the Chinese and Koreans say whitewash Japan's wartime atrocities.
While many believe the Chinese government initially sanctioned the anti-Japanese protests that have festered there for weeks, analysts say they seem to have gone beyond official control.
For decades after World War II, Japan avoided provoking its wartime enemies, with only fringe groups armed with bullhorns and black vans espousing nationalist rhetoric. But as Japan has grown leery of China's increased military strength and North Korea's nuclear weapons, it has pursued a greater role on the world stage -- including a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a redefinition of its constitution to once again legally possess a military. The Koizumi government has sought to assert its national sovereignty, underscoring that goal by restating old claims to islands and territorial waters under dispute with South Korea and China.
Leading analysts concede that the new thinking has opened the door for revisionist views of Japanese history. Newspaper editorials and best-selling books in Japan have extolled the nation's early military expansion, particularly the victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 that launched Japan as a global power. Tokyo's popular governor, Shintaro Ishihara, remarked two years ago that the Korean people "chose" to be annexed by Japan. "You may call it colonialism," he said, "but it was carried out in the most developed and humane manner."
There is no question, analysts say, that China and the two Koreas have periodically used anti-Japanese propaganda as a tool to stoke nationalist flames and deflect public wrath from their leaders. Japan, many here note, has done far more to clear the air of history than China, whose textbooks still neglect the massive human rights abuses committed by the ruling Communist Party.
But many say Japan is also undergoing a surge of nationalism.
"Now is the season of nationalism in the world," said Makoto Iokibe, a professor at Kobe University and an expert on the political and diplomatic history of modern Japan. "After 9/11, there was a burst of nationalism in the United States. There is also growing nationalism in China and Korea, and yes, there is growing nationalism now in Japan," he said. Japan "completely rejected nationalism" after World War II, he said, but "it is making a comeback here. The question is how far it will go."