If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meant what he said about the “power of reconciliation” on his Dec. 27 visit to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, he should sack Defense Minister Tomomi Inada who visited Yasukuni Shrine two days later. If he does nothing, then his visit will be reduced to an empty public relations stunt devoid of sincerity.
Ever since he was rebuked by the United States for visiting Yasukuni in 2013, Abe has avoided the shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead, but has regularly sent a masakaki (sacred tree) as an offering. First lady Akie Abe has also visited, fueling speculation that her husband connived in Inada’s recent visit.
The prime minister’s emphasis on reconciliation in Pearl Harbor now seems like it was an expedient gesture. U.S. President Barack Obama has encouraged Abe to build bridges to former foes in order to overcome the painful shared memories caused by Japanese military aggression. However, this remains unfinished business.
The way to building a common future in northeast Asia requires Japan to humbly acknowledge the traumas it inflicted in China and on the Korean Peninsula.
Apologists for Japan’s selective amnesia on the issue argue that these victims cynically invoke the past, relentlessly hammering Japan on the anvil of history to tarnish its dignity and hamper its diplomacy. There is a measure of truth to such accusations, but Tokyo has handed them that hammer through prolonged dissembling, and shirking a forthright reckoning.
A more penitent approach has greater potential to take away that hammer and undermine such cynicism than continued stonewalling and diplomatic chicanery. Contrition and atonement can create a political space more conducive to diplomacy while restoring dignity to Japan and its victims.
Alas, the prime minister’s pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor only plucked the low hanging fruit of reconciliation. The U.S. and Japan enjoy excellent relations despite the traumatic legacies of the Pacific War. So at a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015 and in Pearl Harbor last month, Abe has been preaching to the choir, promoting reconciliation to the reconciled. There are merits in doing so, but as it is when judging a sporting event, the low degree of difficulty yields a paltry score.
What about Abe’s “comfort women” agreement with South Korea at the end of 2015? Japan’s withdrawal of its ambassador to South Korea over a new comfort women statue in Busan is the death knell for the accord, a diplomatic pout that will stoke anti-Japanese populism and reignite mutual recriminations over shared history. Predictably Koreans repudiated this diplomatic deceit as it demonstrates a failure to understand how and why the wounds of early 20th century colonialism yet linger. Reactionaries here will dismiss Koreans as inherently unreasonable, but that sidesteps the empathy deficit while stoking the fires of recrimination.
There is a “tradition” in Japan of prominent conservatives undermining prime ministerial apologies for Japan’s wartime and colonial-era misdeeds through deliberately provocative words and gestures aimed at dissipating any goodwill generated, and reasserting an exculpatory narrative.
Abe, for example, did so in 2010 in response to then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s poignant apology for Japan’s trampling on the dignity of the Korean people during the era of colonial rule.
Similarly, the fact the defense minister went to Yasukuni on the heels of the prime minister’s Pearl Harbor visit conveys an unmistakable message repudiating Abe’s gesture of reconciliation.
“I visited the shrine with a firm resolve to realize peace for Japan and the rest of the world from a future-oriented perspective,” Inada said after her visit, and yet it must be noted that Yasukuni is a backward-looking shrine manifesting an unrepentant glorification of the country’s wartime past.
“I believe anyone, regardless of their nationalities, can understand the act of expressing gratitude, respect and tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for their country, no matter what kind of historical perspective they hold,” Inada added.
Indeed, nobody would object if she did so at the secular Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, Japan’s official “tomb to the unknown soldier.”
In contrast, Yasukuni is a private religious facility that stirs controversy precisely because it served as the epicenter of wartime state Shinto and the mobilization of the people in what was termed a “Holy War.” And, since 1978, it enshrines the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals, keeping Emperors Showa and Akihito from visiting while also alienating victims of Japanese aggression.
Inada knows that visiting Yasukuni offends China and South Korea, but she is an ardent advocate of normalizing shrine visits by Japan’s political leadership. She embraces an exonerating narrative of the country’s wartime misconduct. This is evident, for example, in her participation in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed in 2005 against Nobel Literature Prize laureate Kenzaburo Oe. Oe was accused of defaming the Imperial Army because he implicated Japanese soldiers in instigating Okinawan group suicides in the closing months of the war in 1945. In 2008, the Osaka District Court and High Court ruled in favor of Oe, citing overwhelming evidence that the military was deeply involved. In 2011, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal. This case reveals that for Inada, clearing the Imperial Japanese military’s name trumps respecting the dignity of its victims.
Inada appears in Li Ying’s extraordinary documentary “Yasukuni” (2008), where she says: “We are committed to rebuilding a proud Japan, where the prime minister can openly worship at Yasukuni. We will devote ourselves to speeding the day when the Emperor too can worship here.”
After viewing the film, she criticized the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan for awarding Li a ¥7.5 million grant to make it, arguing that she “felt the movie’s ideological message was that Yasukuni was a device to drive people into an aggressive war.”
I doubt many people who actually saw the documentary would agree with her, but neo-nationalist thugs who hadn’t watched it threatened theaters in an attempt to stop others from seeing it. The defense minister maintains that she upholds freedom of expression, but apparently inspired a campaign of intimidation. Curiously, she’s had no reservations about supporting “The Truth of Nanjing,” a 2007 film by Sakura Channel that denies the 1937 massacre by Japanese troops.
Inada was once touted as a potential prime minister before she repeatedly embarrassed herself, and Abe, in recent Diet interpellations, flubbing her lines and bursting into tears.
The prime minister can show the world that he is sincere about reconciliation by dumping her and visiting the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Reaching out to the Chinese there would take real courage and statesmanship. Forty-five years ago, Kakuei Tanaka normalized relations with China, an impressive breakthrough that Abe can best honor by exorcising the demons of the shared past that bedevil contemporary relations.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.