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Tuesday, 16 May, 2000, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Japan: A divine country?
Yoshiro Mori
Yoshiro Mori: His comments have struck a raw nerve
By David Powers

Yoshiro Mori joins a long line of Japanese politicians who have failed to realise that their opinions, even when expressed in private, are public property and can have far-reaching repercussions.

Keizo Obuchi, with Yoshiro Mori behind him
Mr Mori, right, took over from the late Keizo Obuchi, left
In recent times, off-the-cuff remarks about blacks in the USA, Japan's role in the rape of Nanjing, and the whole question of Japanese war responsibility have caused international outrage and lost senior politicians their jobs at the rate of one or two a year.

Now the opposition is baying for the prime minister's blood, and calling for his resignation.

What makes Mr Mori's position particularly precarious is that the legitimacy of his government was already under serious question, following revelations about the handover of power when his predecessor Keizo Obuchi was incapacitated with a stroke six weeks ago.

An unspoken taboo surrounds the whole subject of the Imperial Family

His comments about Japan being "a divine country" (kami no kuni) centred on the Emperor have also struck a particularly raw nerve, both at home and with Japan's neighbours who suffered appallingly when the country waged war in the Emperor's name.

The days are long since gone when trams would stop in front of the Imperial Palace while all passengers bowed in the direction of their "living god", and most Japanese never give a thought in their daily lives to either the Shinto religion or the Emperor.

But an unspoken taboo surrounds the whole subject of the Imperial Family. Even mild criticism often brings swift and ruthless retaliation from right-wing extremists. So most Japanese say nothing.

This lack of healthy debate gives undue prominence to comments like those made by Mr Mori.

The perception will be that Mr Mori is leaning towards a nationalist revival

Attempting to justify his comments by saying he was referring to the cultural and historical role the Emperor has played in Japanese society is only likely to exacerbate the situation.

Mr Mori was speaking to a group of Shinto-backed members of parliament; his party has recently given the Rising Sun flag and Imperial Anthem a legal status they never had before; and he has supported legislation to rename a public holiday, Day of Showa (Hirohito's posthumous name).

Whatever Mr Mori's real intentions were in calling Japan "a divine country", the perception will be that he is leaning towards a nationalist revival - and in politics, the perception is reality.

The Japanese Prime Minister plays host to the G8 summit in less than two months' time, when he is expected to speak as the representative of all Asia.

The international response to Mr Mori's remarks will be an important indicator of whether the region thinks he is the right man for the job.

David Powers is a former Tokyo correspondent for the BBC

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See also:

16 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese PM sparks holy row
15 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Row over Obuchi funeral
09 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan fixes election date
07 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mori pledges Japan 'rebirth'
05 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Yoshiro Mori
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