Perhaps the most significant aspect of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit on Thursday to Yasukuni Shrine – the place where Japanese venerate their war dead – was its timing. Abe chose to go on the day that marked the first anniversary of his administration, in effect directly linking his government with this controversial establishment. He not only became the first serving prime minister to cross its threshold for seven years but, most unusually, he lent the visit an official stamp. (Notwithstanding that the Prime Minister’s Office described it as a “private” affair, the media were forewarned, his visit was televised live and he signed the visitor’s book using his official title.)
Abe’s action was immediately condemned by China and South Korea, which consider Yasukuni Shrine an unholy vestige of Japanese militarism. It is the place where soldiers and sailors dedicated themselves to the emperor before heading off to war and where, since 1978, the spirits of fourteen convicted “Class A” war criminals have been enshrined.
Japanese nationalists argue that Yasukuni, occupying a large site in central Tokyo, serves the same purpose as, for example, the Cenotaph in London, Arlington Cemetery in Washington or the War Memorial in Canberra. But, despite now being operated by a private organisation (an arrangement paying lip service to the constitutional separation of religion), the shrine is irrevocably associated with the discredited apparatus of State Shinto that once promoted emperor worship, imperialism and notions of racial and cultural superiority. For many, this association is perpetuated by the military museum now attached to the shrine. Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University, is one of many critics of the museum’s “selective and sly” representation of Japan’s shared history with Asia:
Japan’s war in China is supposed to have suppressed banditry and terrorism, while its invasion of the rest of Asia is represented as a war of liberation from Western colonialism. Missing from the extensive exhibits are any mentions of the Rape of Nanjing, the awful [biological] experiments conducted by Unit 731 on prisoners of war, or the suffering endured by tens of thousands of “comfort women”… The only thing that Japan’s modern reactionaries regret about the war is defeat, and they are still fighting an uphill battle against Japanese public opinion to justify wartime Japan’s ‘’noble mission.” No amount of sanitizing will change that.
– The Japan Times, 14 August 2013
Prime Minister Abe said he visited Yasukuni “to pledge and determine that never again will people suffer in war.“ It was “not intended to hurt the Chinese or South Koreans.” His remarks, however, upend the reality of what Yasukuni represents in both historical and contemporary terms. He knew full well any attempt to associate anti-war sentiments with such a place would be highly offensive to those who suffered at the hands of Japanese militarism. To expect them somehow to “reform,” to “grow up” and feel differently about the issue, just because he says so, seems to me the height of arrogance. (Not even Yasukuni is as brazen as this: sensitive to disapproving eyes, it requires journalists to obtain prior permission from the management before reporting on the contents of its revisionist exhibits. For the record, this journalist did not comply.)
To some extent Abe’s action is unsurprising. After his first stint as prime minister, in 2006-7, he went on record as saying he deeply regretted having abstained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine. He did so then out of concern for relations with China and South Korea, which had been damaged by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni. Since Abe’s return to office relations have plummeted again mainly as a result of territorial disputes inflamed by the activities of super-patriots in all three countries. It must now be assumed that Tokyo either does not want or cannot foresee a return to cordiality in the immediate future.
The Abe Government is set upon a course to “normalise” Japan, most notably by expanding its military posture. The stated purpose is to enable it to be more proactive in contributing to international peacekeeping, but elements of the military build-up, such as the acquisition of a capability to undertake opposed naval landings, are clearly part of a response to China’s claim on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Beijing’s strongly worded criticism of Abe’s defence plans, together with its recent declaration of an air defence identification zone incorporating the disputed islands, are part of the tit-for-tat confrontation to which Abe’s Yasukuni visit is the latest contribution.
Japanese nationalists who wish to refight old battles – to make out, for instance, that Yasukuni is a shrine to peace – are incapable of taking the country forward to a sounder, more productive relationship with their neighbours. Even if the “history debate” has been hijacked in China and South Korea by equally blinkered nationalists – as, seems to me, is the case – nothing is achieved by giving them legitimacy by adopting the same mentality. Abe, judging from his expression of regret about his past efforts to assuage the feelings of Chinese and Koreans, is looking backwards, not forwards. Whether he realises it or not, he is sounding like the Japanese leaders of the 1930s who, impatient with being “misunderstood,” insisted that other nations accept Japan on its own terms – or else. It is ugly, wrongheaded and dangerous. Most particularly, it ill fits the reality of Japan’s place in the world in 2013: a dignified place forged out of the disaster of the 1930s and dependent upon a repudiation of self-aggrandisement and the use of force.
Other nations, with an interest in improved regional relations, have a role to play in urging all sides to step back from confrontation and stop trying to win old battles or overturn the verdict of the past. The United States Embassy was quick to make its views known. While Japan was “a valued ally and friend”, it said in a statement, the Embassy was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” The Australian Government recently sided with Japan on the issue of China’s air defence zone; it should now make its “best friend” feel the brunt of its disapproval of Abe’s reckless action.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years.