Emperor's new clothes

Observations on Japan

A bouffant hairdo and coloured shirts seem to have helped turn the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, into a media-acclaimed "modernist" since he was returned to office with an even bigger majority in September.

Yet his behaviour exposes him as an old-fashioned reactionary with disturbing tendencies to indulge the mythical racist superiority and nationalism that drove pre-war Japan's disastrous imperial mission. Ghosts of the Second World War now haunt Koizumi's politics.

Last month the prime minister revisited the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honours, along with Japan's war dead, 14 convicted Class A war criminals. His prayers were a snub to those in Asia and around the world who have expressed deep offence at his four previous visits.

Koizumi's recent cabinet reshuffle further suggested his sympathy for the supremacist fantasies of imperial Nippon, especially two senior appointments to what the Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo called a "hardline rightist" team. The new foreign minister in the Liberal Democratic (conservative) cabinet is Taro Aso, a fellow worshipper at Yasukuni. Aso publicly advocates the Japanese master-state theory that propelled its 1931-45 militaristic misadventures.

In a speech opening a national museum in Kyushu in October, Aso proclaimed his homeland as "one nation, one civilisation, one language, one culture and one race, the like of which there is no other on this earth". He ignored not only Japan's aboriginal inhabitants, the Ainu, a linguistically different people who live in deprivation on the northern island of Hokkaido, but also the separate origins of the Okinawans and the diverse anthropological roots of the Japanese in general.

Aso's rival to succeed Koizumi, who plans to retire next September, is Shinzo Abe, the newly promoted chief cabinet secretary. Abe is a forceful rightist, a Yasukuni devotee, and another guardian of old Japan - his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a minister during the war, was jailed as a Class A war criminal for three years afterwards.

Abe also defends Japan in the unresolved scandal of "comfort women", a cruel euphemism for 200,000 Asian and some Dutch women who were coerced into being what Amnesty International (in a recent report ignored by Japan's media) described as the imperial warriors' "sexual slaves". As deputy cabinet secretary, Abe pressured NHK, the national broadcaster, to moderate a television documentary about the violated women.

Koizumi's modernist portrayal in the mainstream media ignores these atavistic inclinations. Politically, his programme of "reform" - extensive privatisation - recalls Margaret Thatcher's of 20 years ago. Is Koizumi just appeasing his ancien regime rightists? Or, more likely, is he one himself, but isn't saying?

The coverage of his fifth visit to Yasukuni played down an important point. The shrine's Shinto religion officially sanctifies the war criminals honoured there. They receive not just a cenotaph's remembrance, but are worshipped as kami, or divine ones. So Koizumi is making repeated obeisance to the sacramental gods of a ritualised nationalism. He made his most recent trip to Yasukuni despite such visits having been ruled unconstitutional, in violation of the separation of state from religion.

Koizumi's father was director general of the Defence Agency (minister of state for defence) and five of his cabinet colleagues are also sons or grandsons of politicians active during the war or immediately after. He is steeped in what a UN human rights investigator has criticised as Japanese society's "national inheritance" of an "insularity still marked by real racism and xenophobia".

The imperial mystique has not returned; it never went away at the top, even though it may now wear pastel shirts.