Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his long-speculated visit last week to the Yasukuni Shrine that memorializes his nation's war dead but stirred surprisingly mixed reactions among the Chinese, South Koreans and North Koreans, the usual critics.
The prime minister, who had made several visits previously to the shrine in Tokyo, put a bit more spin into this journey by going on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender to end World War II in 1945. Why going on the day that marked the most devastating defeat in Japan's history should stir emotions elsewhere was unexplained.
The Chinese, as expected, were the most vigorous in protesting because, as the official Xinhua news agency asserted, China had been "the biggest victim" of Japanese aggression. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) summoned Japanese Ambassador Yuji Miyamoto to express China's "strong indignation" at Koizumi's action.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who has said he would not meet with Koizumi so long as his visits to Yasukuni continued, seemed mute on this particular visit. The official North Korean Central News Agency, continued to revile Japan for what Pyongyang calls a return to militarism but ignored the Yasukuni visit, at least on the day it took place.
The varying degrees of disruption over Yasukuni, where 14 prominent war criminals are enshrined along with the spirits of the 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have died since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended Japan's isolation, tended to mask a fundamental competition for power in East Asia.
China and Japan are at once emerging as prime regional powers. Driven by a surging economy, China seeks the political and military power to demand that major decisions in East Asia be approved by Beijing before being implemented.
Japan has begun to shed the passive and pacifist cocoon in which it wrapped itself after the physical and emotional destruction of World War II. As it seeks to become what some Japanese call "a normal nation," Japan has started to assert itself in the international arena.
In this billowing competition, the Chinese have been using the Yasukuni issue as a weapon to strike Japan.
In response, many Japanese have accused China of trying to "bully" Japan. That backlash has only intensified the rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing.
The two Koreas, meantime, have been thrashing around.
The South Korean government has been trying to entice the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il into a process that would lead to reconciliation. The North Koreans have responded by firing missiles and developing nuclear arms. Consequently, the Koreans appear to have taken themselves out of the game.
After praying for the repose of the spirits of the war dead, Koizumi went to the Budokan, or Hall of Martial Arts, to speak at the annual commemoration of World War II. There, Emperor Akihito, the prime minister and other dignitaries once again apologized for the misery Japan caused from 1931 to 1945.
The emperor, son of the late Emperor Hirohito who reigned over Japan during that period, said: "I renew my deep sorrow, considering the number of bereaved families who lost their invaluable ones during the war."
The Chinese and Koreans have been leaders in asserting that Japanese have not taken responsibility for their actions during the militaristic era.