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Japan PM poll win seen golden chance for Asia ties

September 14, 2005

By Masayuki Kitano

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi’s huge election victory could provide a golden
opportunity to mend fences with China and South Korea rather
than being an impediment to better ties, analysts say.

It is far from clear, however, whether Koizumi — who has
angered China and South Korea with his visits to Yasukuni
shrine for the war dead — will make use of the opportunity.

“There is a possibility that he may carry out a drastic
shift in diplomacy with Asia … on the back of political
assets he has gained due to the overwhelming win,” said
Tomoyuki Kojima, a China specialist at Keio University in
Tokyo.

“But if you ask whether such a possibility can be derived
from the logic of his Asian diplomacy up to now, the answer is
no,” Kojima said.

Still, worries that the landslide win for Koizumi’s ruling
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — which took 296 seats in
Sunday’s election for the 480-seat lower house of parliament —
may spur a further worsening of ties were probably overblown,
analysts said.

“It seems concerns are strong in China and South Korea that
Koizumi will use his stronger domestic base to lean toward the
right,” said Lee Jong-won, a Korea specialist at Rikkyo
University in Tokyo.

“But I don’t think things are that simple,” said Lee.

Instead, Koizumi’s greatly bolstered political clout could
expand his diplomatic options.

“He has won support for his stance on reforms and he
doesn’t need to try to gather votes by using the history issue
such as Yasukuni,” Lee said.

Koizumi’s visits to the Tokyo shrine have angered China and
South Korea because 14 Class-A war criminals, including
executed wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, are honored there
along with Japan’s 2.5 million war dead.

WHIRLWIND VISIT

Koizumi, who last visited Yasukuni in January 2004, has
said he will make an “appropriate” decision on future visits.

He has repeatedly said he visits Yasukuni not to glorify
war but to pray for peace and that other countries should not
interfere in how Japan mourns its war dead.

Koizumi left on Thursday to attend a U.N. summit that could
provide an opportunity to reach out to Asian neighbors.

There are doubts, however, about how much Koizumi may be
able to accomplish during his one-day visit to New York, where
he is likely to reiterate Japan’s call for enlarging the elite
U.N. Security Council, an effort that has raised hackles in
China.

Prior to his departure, Koizumi told reporters that he
hoped the trip would help tackle the issue of strengthening the
U.N.

“I do not believe debate on our proposal (for enlarging the
security council) was wasted,” he said. “I hope to work for
more cooperative U.N. reform while maintaining good relations
with all the countries involved.”

Opposition to Japan’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the
panel, coupled with anger over approval given to a school
textbook that critics say glosses over Japanese aggression
during World War Two, triggered anti-Japanese protests in China
in April. A Japanese official told reporters earlier this week
that no plans had been made for bilateral talks during
Koizumi’s New York visit, aside from a meeting U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan.

Despite the opportunity presented by Koizumi’s increased
political clout, a drastic improvement in Japan’s ties with
Asian neighbors seems unlikely if Koizumi’s track record is
anything to go by, said Keio University’s Kojima.

“It’s all up to what’s in Koizumi’s heart,” Kojima said.

“A decision to stop (the visits) to achieve specific
progress in East Asian diplomacy is possible, but he has his
own particular philosophy that he upholds,” Kojima said.




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