In the Washington Post article that ran on this page Aug. 22, “Much to-do about a shrine,” conservative U.S. commentator George Will suggests that Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race, stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial for Japan’s war dead, if he is elected prime minister. The reason given for this is that Japan should repair its strained relations with China.
Will says nothing about how this issue would relate to America’s global strategy. As a historian, he writes in a style that is generally neutral as well as contemplative. The article as a whole has no critical overtones with regard to Japan.
For example, Will views Japan’s attitude toward China — Japan won’t listen as long as China meddles in this country’s internal affairs — in terms of Adm. Nelson’s so-called Fire Poker Principle. Nelson, speaking with some of his officials the night before the naval battle at Trafalgar, was quoted as saying with a poker in hand: “It doesn’t matter where I put this — unless Bonaparte says I must put it there. In that case, I must put it someplace else.”
Will doesn’t say whether he considers this right or wrong; he takes a neutral, historical look. Overall, he writes with humor and grace. The only exception is his sharp reference to an exhibit at the shrine’s military museum, Yushukan: “The museum adjacent to Yasukuni says ‘The Great East Asia War’ began because, when the New Deal failed to banish the Depression, ‘the only option open to Roosevelt . . . was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war. The U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war.’ “
As Will puts it, “That is disgracefully meretricious — and familiar. For years, a small but vocal cadre of Americans — anti-FDR (President Franklin D. Roosevelt) zealots — said approximately that.”
Clearly, the writer scorns this argument while at the same time reminding us of the existence of a minority view that supports it. He adds, fairly, that “neither (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi nor Abe includes the museum in his visits to the shrine.”
There is one point, though, in Will’s commentary that I find difficult to accept. Although he is a historian I respect, the article contains a factual misunderstanding about the shifting international situation. The anti-Japan demonstrations that took place in Chinese cities in April 2005 had nothing to do with Yasukuni. The protests were sponsored by the Chinese government in opposition to Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, not as a consequence of Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni.
Before Koizumi paid homage at the shrine last October, I expressed support for his action on the grounds that no anti-Japan demonstrations would result, except for a few small-scale protests under strict police guard. In fact, no such demonstrations occurred. There were no such rallies, either, after the Aug. 15 visit.
Japanese investment in China has surged again since about the time of the prime minister’s shrine visit last year. Although there has been no summit meeting between the two countries, this represents an artificial obstacle. Indeed, one can argue from a historical perspective that this kind of problem might as well be ignored.
Will seems really disturbed by the Yushukan exhibit, which seems incompatible with his intellectual integrity as a historian. The exhibit reflects, if to a lesser extent than in other countries, some of the anti-America feelings that exist around the world. The first edition of the new history textbook published by Fusosha (used for four years) implicitly endorsed the notion that America had consistently plotted, ever since the Russo-Japanese War, to destroy Japan as a competitor in East Asia.
Education Ministry censors left such anti-U.S. descriptions intact while ordering, sometimes unnecessarily, the meticulous rewriting of passages concerning China and South Korea.
I did not take part in writing the first edition. But I did have a chance to edit part of the second edition, now in use, which leaves out those descriptions.
It may be true that America eventually recovered from the Depression thanks to its economy going on a war footing, but the theory of premeditated action is something else. I can only describe it in terms similar to those used by Will — immature in historical judgment, one-sided, cheap, lacking in intellectual integrity and so on.
I demand that the exhibit in question be removed from Yushukan. Other exhibits, such as wartime films designed to stir up the fighting spirit, are justifiable as historical testaments. But this cheap view of history damages the dignity of Yasukuni. Should the exhibit remain, I would not be able to defend Yasukuni anymore.
(Editor’s note: Yasukuni Shrine decided to make a necessary change to the aforementioned Yushukan exhibit in accordance with suggestions by the author after the original Japanese version of this article appeared in the Seiron column of Sankei Shimbun on Aug. 24)