The Japanese government secretly led efforts to honor top war criminals at a Tokyo war shrine, according to new documents released this week that undermine Tokyo's stance that their enshrinement is a religious matter unrelated to politics.
Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, is a diplomatic flashpoint between Japan and its Asian neighbors China and South Korea, which see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.
Class-A war criminals executed for their role in World War II were enshrined at Yasukuni in 1978. But the government insisted it had no influence in the matter because the shrine is an independent religious institution.
Some 808 government and shrine documents made public in a book released on Wednesday called A New Edition of Materials on the Yasukuni Shrine Issue, indicated, however, that the government was instrumental in having the officials honored there.
"Judging from the documents, it was the Health Ministry that made the first move," said Chifuyu Hiyama, an official at the National Diet Library that published the 1,200-page book.
The Health Ministry, which was in charge of the war dead, provided a list containing the names of executed Class-A criminals, including wartime leader Hideki Tojo, according to a Jan. 31, 1969, Yasukuni document.
Class-A criminals "can be honored," but the process must be carried out secretly, the shrine document said, citing an agreement with the ministry.
"Announcement should be avoided," it added.
It took another nine years before the shrine actually added the 12 Class-A war criminals to the list of honored war dead. The decision was apparently delayed by a series of meetings and discussions among shrine officials.
The book "confirmed the government's initiative to enshrine war criminals through active interaction with the shrine," said Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political science at Tokyo's Sophia University.
"It shows the process involved a serious problem of separation of state and religion," he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, rejected the book's inference that the government led the enshrinement and said yesterday that the ministry had only provided the information at the request of the shrine.
He repeated the government's position that it was the shrine that made the final decision and that the process did not violate the separation of religion and state.
"I do not think there is any problem," Abe told reporters. "It is the shrine that carried out the enshrinement."
In Seoul, South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong urged Japan to "take responsible steps" over the book's revelations, but did not elaborate.