There is considerable speculation about whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to visit Yasukuni Shrine in mid-August. This is an especially sensitive time of the year as it coincides both with the annual Bon festival, when people honor their ancestors, and the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 on the 15th of the month.

Abe has expressed regrets about not vising the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo which honors the nation’s war dead, including convicted Class-A war criminals, during his first stint as premier in 2006-07.

Back then, he was busy trying to mend fences with neighbors outraged by the repeated visits to Yasukuni by his predecessor, Prime Minsiter Junichiro Koizumi — a leader who demonstrated that sacrificing Japan’s national interests at the altar of that shrine is a dead end.

Japanese prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni are counterproductive precisely because the place is talismanic ground zero for an unrepentant view regarding Japan’s 1931-45 rampage through Asia.

Such visits have also been found to violate the Constitution. Emperor Showa refrained from going there from 1978, when 14 Class-A war criminals were enshrined there. Emperor Akihito, who acceded to the throne in 1989, has also stayed away because Yasukuni is indelibly tarnished.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso once called for a secular alternative to Yasukuni — but that didn’t stop him and two other Cabinet ministers visiting this past April along with a phalanx of 168 lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The Yasukuni narrative of Japan’s shared history with Asia is made explicit at the adjacent Yushukan Museum, where Japan is portrayed as the champion of Asia on a noble mission to liberate the region from Western colonialism.

Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer, recently pilloried the “aggressive self-pity” on display there because the only suffering commemorated is that endured by Japanese, while the millions of Asian victims of Japanese aggression are nowhere visible. Probably few visitors will connect the locomotive located near the entrance of the museum to the Railway of Death on the Thai-Burma border that was built mostly by Asian slave labor. Allied prisoners of war who also worked there have written extensively about their suffering, but testify to the far more heinous treatment of Asians by the self-styled Japanese “liberators.”

The atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the six-week Nanjing Massacre from mid-December 1937 are also missing from the Yushukan Museum. This is despite the fact that Kaikosha, an organization of veterans and bereaved families, surveyed members who served in Nanjing at that time to elicit descriptions of their experiences, fully expecting they would refute the horrific revelations of rape and murderous mayhem widely accepted by Japanese historians. However, these eyewitnesses acknowledged the atrocities and, to its credit, the organization published those findings in the mid-1980s — and the chairman apologized to China.

Undaunted by facts, the apologists soldier on, wrapping themselves in the flag while stomping on the nation’s dignity and reputation by minimizing, denying, shifting responsibility and otherwise distorting what happened. Despite gaping holes in the revisionist apologia, yojinboteki chishikijin (literally, “henchmen intellectuals”) enjoy the limelight and are a significant factor explaining why Japan has made little progress on reconciliation with its East Asian neighbors.

Such folk are not short of influential accomplices.

Kevin Doak, the Nippon Foundation Endowed Chair in History at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., has long encouraged Yasukuni visits by Japanese leaders. He recently met with Abe, who must have been pleased that the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the U.S. capital published an essay by Doak praising Abe for his “civic nationalism”. It was a timely counter to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report, in May 2013, which criticized Abe’s “strong nationalism” and how it subverts U.S. regional interests by gratuitously provoking China and South Korea.

But Abe is not about civic nationalism; he embraces an unreconstructed nationalism. Paying homage to Yasukuni is not an exercise in promoting liberal values and human rights, but rather a spiritual revanchism steeped in a discredited imperialism.

On this year’s Sovereignty Day on April 28, Abe took attendees at a Tokyo ceremony, including the Emperor and Empress, by surprise when, in an awkward echo of wartime militarism, he raised both arms while ritually crying out “Tenno heika banzai” (“Long live the Emperor”) in what was a highly unusual public display by a postwar premier.

Doak is surely wrong when he suggests that presidential visits to Arlington National Cemetery in the U.S. capital are no different from Japanese prime ministerial pilgrimages to Yasukuni, where the souls of those who died in the Emperor’s “holy war” in Asia are enshrined and venerated as gods.

Sven Saaler, a professor of Japanese history at Sophia University in Tokyo, believes there are some fundamental differences. He states, “First, Arlington is designated as the official national cemetery, but is multireligious. You can find Christian crosses and Jewish stars of David on the tombs. More importantly, Yasukuni is not the official national cemetery, and it is monotheistic.

“Secondly, Arlington doesn’t promote an explicit historical interpretation even if the implicit message emphasizes the honor and glory of dying for the nation, like in many national memorials. Yasukuni explicitly promotes a view of history that underlies the veneration of the war dead worshipped there. This is expressed in the Yushukan Museum, and it portrays all Japanese wars in the modern period as wars to protect Japanese independence and, partly, as wars of Asian liberation — an interpretation that clearly is only a minority view in Japanese society.”

Moreover, many Japanese are not keen to have their relatives venerated at Yasukuni, and this also rankles many of the Taiwanese and Koreans whose relatives are enshrined there.

Saaler adds, “It is an atavism of prewar state Shinto, which is not corresponding anymore to religious customs of Japanese society.”

Yasukuni visits matter because Japan risks further antagonizing China and South Korea at a time when Japan needs to improve ties. It is time to rebrand Japan, and that begins with leaders honoring the war dead at the site designated for doing so — the secular Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in central Tokyo.

This means not trying to rehabilitate Japanese aggression at Yasukuni, and also declaring a moratorium on visits by any premiers and their Cabinet ministers — as was indeed suggested by former Ambassador Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather, wartime Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, is one of the Class-A war criminals enshrined there.

Rebranding Japan involves advancing regional reconciliation through a forthright reckoning, sincere gestures of atonement and acts of contrition. The best way to honor Japanese sacrifices involves exposing the tragedy that wartime leaders inflicted on the nation — and certainly not shirking the burdens of history.

Rebranding also means focusing on all that Japan can be proud of since 1945 — including the best living standards in the region, embracing democracy in a relatively egalitarian society and promoting regional economic peace and development through massive aid programs.

Why glorify a shabby past?

Japan’s recalcitrant conservatives are playing with fire and doing a disservice to their nation. Visiting Yasukuni Shrine might be a tempting act of redemption for Abe, but he should refrain as it would alienate neighbors and nations that share Japan’s values — including the United States.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.