Japan to Honor Wartime Emperor

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 14, 2005

TOKYO, May 13 -- Japanese legislators overwhelmingly approved a controversial bill Friday creating a national holiday to honor Hirohito, emperor of Japan during World War II, a move that critics called the latest in a series of steps to glorify Japan's militaristic past.

By a vote of 202 to 14, the upper house of Japan's parliament passed the bill to give the country a day off on Hirohito's April 29 birthday. The lower house approved the bill last month.

The holiday -- which takes effect in 2006 -- will be known as "Showa Day," after the official name for Hirohito's reign, which lasted from 1926 to 1989. Showa means "enlightened peace."

The bill had been scrapped twice because of political pressure and public criticism, but on the third try, it sailed through parliament, at a time of strong diplomatic tensions with Asian neighbors over Japan's wartime record.

Many analysts saw the bill, sponsored by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as part of a broad shift away from the county's post-World War II pacificism.

The Education Ministry last month approved a new version of a textbook that critics at home and abroad say whitewashes Japan's aggression in Asia. Japan has begun to assert more vigorously claims over disputed islands and waters that were lost after its defeat in World War II.

Polls show that the Japanese increasingly feel that their country, which has the world's second-largest economy, deserves a global role commensurate with its financial might, including a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. And there is pressure to modify terms in Japan's U.S.-drafted constitution that renounce war.

Opposition to a more assertive Japan has sparked new tensions with East Asian countries that were victims of Tokyo's aggression, particularly China and South Korea. Last month, demonstrators staged violent anti-Japanese protests at many Japanese diplomatic facilities and businesses in China. Thousands of South Koreans protested against Japan in March.

On Friday, Japanese opponents of the Showa Day bill condemned its passage. "The ruling Liberal Democratic Party wants to promote nationalism through this," said Seiji Mataichi, an upper house lawmaker from the Social Democratic Party and one of the handful of legislators who opposed the bill. He noted that debate continues over Hirohito's wartime responsibility.

"Why, in this, the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, do we have to create a Showa Day?" he asked. "This is inviting opposition from neighboring countries such as China and South Korea."

Supporters of Showa Day said it would cause the nation to reflect on the upheaval of the era and the accomplishments of rebuilding Japan during the postwar period of Hirohito's reign. Tsutomu Takebe, secretary general of the Liberal Democrats, told reporters on Friday that he did not expect negative reactions from China and South Korea. He argued that since the legislation was passed democratically, there should be understanding abroad.

Political analysts say the shift toward new assertiveness in foreign policy is fueled by mounting security fears in Japan. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons, and China is building its military might.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been giving the Japanese military, known officially as the Self-Defense Forces, a new international role, including the dispatch of non-combat troops to Iraq in Japan's largest military operation since World War II.

But honoring Hirohito -- who was once considered divine, but rescinded that status after Japan's capitulation to the United States in 1945 -- with a national holiday is still considered a touchy subject. After his death in 1989, his birthday was marked with an ambiguous holiday called "Greenery Day."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company