Koizumi's contemporary dilemma is haunted by history

Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, has lost the vote on his grand scheme to privatise the country's post office with its vast savings pool and will go to the polls. For now, the village-pump communitarian face of Japanese conservatism has won out over anti-bureaucratic, privatising radicalism. The global finance industry will have to wait a little longer to get its hands on that Dollars 3,000bn (Pounds 1,700bn) of Japanese savings.

But the snap election next month is likely to focus as much on the dire state of Japan's relations with China and Korea as on privatisation.

Here at issue is the other face of Japanese conservatism: the reluctance to feel guilty about the war. The key symbol of that reluctance has been Mr Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to pay respects to Japan's war dead. There is speculation he might open his election campaign with such a visit on the 60th anniversary of the war's end next Monday. Opinion polls show a bare majority think it "wiser" not to go. Mr Koizumi may think bravado and talking tough to the Chinese will win more votes than wisdom.

Certainly, Yasukuni shrine, centre of the oppressive pre-war state Shinto cult of patriotism, is a strange place to go to pray for peace - which is what Mr Koizumi says he does. It is exclusively dedicated to those who "gave their lives for the Emperor" (not including air-raid victims). An attached museum glories in the patriotic heroism of Japan's tragic failure. Also - a core theme of Chinese complaints - it enshrines those judged by the Tokyo war crimes trials to be war criminals.

In the wake of Mr Koizumi's legislative defeat, the opposition Minshuto now has a real chance of governing. What line might it take? One possibility is to promise serious debate about the justice of those war crimes trials. Every Japanese party leader must take into account a widespread feeling that Japan was not singly to blame for the war. Only one-fifth of that bare majority in opinion polls who thought official visits to the shrine unwise thought also they were "wrong". But this vague unease is currently expressed and exploited only by the fanatic populist right whose blogs and manga cartoons make martyred heroes out of the "victims of victor's justice". The establishment line hitherto has been not that the trials were "just", but that "Japan accepted the justice of the trials in the San Francisco peace treaty: the matter is closed". Nothing could more clearly signal the absence of that key Confucian virtue, sincerity.

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