Every year around this time, in the run-up to the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, feverish speculation ensues about whether Japan’s top politicians will visit Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. Chinese and South Koreans — not to mention many Japanese — abhor such visits because the shrine honors the souls of 14 “Class A” war criminals. Visitors say they have every right to honor the 2.5 million other Japanese war dead celebrated at Yasukuni; they compare the shrine to the U.S. war cemetery at Arlington.
This is dangerous nonsense. Yasukuni is ground zero for an unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime aggression.
During World War II, the shrine served as the “command headquarters” of State Shinto, a religion that deified the emperor and mobilized Japanese subjects to fight a holy war at his behest. The private foundation that runs Yasukuni added the 14 most controversial “souls” — surreptitiously — in 1978.
The shrine’s political mission is on blatant display at the adjacent Yushukan museum, run by the same foundation. There, the Class A war criminals are portrayed as martyrs. 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 experiments conducted by Unit 731 on prisoners of war, or the suffering endured by tens of thousands of “comfort women.”
The museum presents a selective and sly reinterpretation of Japan’s shared history with Asia — one that is antithetical to reconciliation, convinces few Japanese, and offends neighboring nations that endured the brunt of Japan’s imperial aggression.
Politicians who insist that they are only paying tribute to those who died for their country when they visit Yasukuni are not telling the truth.
If that’s all they wanted to do, they could walk five minutes down the road to Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which is, like Arlington, Japan’s officially designated war cemetery.
It is telling that Emperor Showa (Hirohito), once the head priest of State Shinto, confided to an aide that he stopped visiting Yasukuni after 1978 precisely because the shrine had been tainted by the presence of the Class A war criminals. This explicit politicization of the site also explains why his son, current Emperor Akihito, has maintained the imperial household’s embargo on visits.
Though he has refused to confirm that he won’t visit Yasukuni this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to spend Aug. 15 with the Emperor.
Abe aides have used this convenient excuse to suggest that a visit to the shrine is highly unlikely: Such a gesture would be a deliberate insult to the Imperial family.
Of course, Abe also knows firsthand that Yasukuni visits are a diplomatic dead end. His mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, caused great damage to Japan’s regional interests by repeatedly going to Yasukuni between 2001 and 2006.
Trying to repair relations with Beijing and Seoul, Abe himself stayed away from the shrine during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007. He has said he regrets that decision. But he also knows that his legacy will be determined by his ability to revive Japan’s dormant economy — a task that will not be made any easier by alienating trade partners China and South Korea. Aside from stumbling over a question about aggression in Parliament, Abe has done himself and the nation a service by keeping history — not his best subject — at arm’s length.
Still, this ad-hoc strategy only keeps the controversy alive. Will members of Abe’s Cabinet and his party show up at Yasukuni on the 15th? Will Abe himself go during the Takayama Matsuri Autumn Festival, or next year? What if a slew of backbenchers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party turns up at the shrine en masse? The damage to Japan’s reputation and regional standing would likely be the same.
There have been sensible suggestions to dis-enshrine the 14 Class A war criminals. But Yasukuni’s head priest says this is impossible; enshrinement is permanent.
Indeed, hosting those souls is a point of pride for the shrine. Yasukuni is not about dignified homage; it is about scoring political points and drawing attention to revisionist history.
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 only way to end the controversy is to impose a moratorium on visits to Yasukuni by any serving Cabinet minister. This idea was first promoted several years ago by Ambassador Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather is one of the Class A war criminals enshrined there. Officials should honor Japan’s war dead at the official cemetery at Chidorigafuchi, not at a privately run propaganda center.
Abe’s rightwing views on history are well-known; they played a role in his abrupt and embarrassing fall from power in 2007. Intimates say that he is searching for redemption. What better way than to end the controversy over Yasukuni once and for all? The fact that he comes from the conservative camp would give any moratorium he declares added force, making it harder for any future prime minister to reverse the decision.
If Abe is truly looking for a new beginning — for himself, and for Japan’s relations with its neighbors — that’s where he should start.
Jeffrey Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan