“And why shouldn’t we?”
With a thumping Upper House election victory behind them, this question is likely on the minds of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his political allies as they contemplate a visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the day Japan commemorates the end of World War II.
If they do visit the shrine, they will probably insist that they are doing what politicians do in every other country with military conflicts in its past — proudly commemorating their war dead, with an utterance seemingly indifferent to the rights and wrongs of that past: “They sacrificed their precious lives for their country.”
There is nothing wrong with this, they will say, however much it angers the Koreans or Chinese.
What they say about other countries’ remembrance is obviously correct. For instance, at an April 25 remembrance service in my home country, New Zealand, the governor-general spoke of those New Zealanders who had “paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.”
Luckily for New Zealand, no other country disputes its politicians’ right to express this truism, and none claims to be a victim of New Zealand’s wartime actions. Unluckily for Japan, its politicians voice this truism in an East Asia where stories of national wartime victimization abound.
These stories answer to the 19th-century French philosopher Ernst Renan’s principle that “where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.”
In East Asia, the historic source of those griefs is usually Japan. Such stories provide meaning for the sacrifices that the citizens of China, North and South Korea collectively made or suffered in World War II and in the postwar struggles to build their nations as independent states.
They also provide legitimacy for their chief patrons: the governments who associate themselves with the nation-founding events depicted in them.
The nationalist identities in these stories in North and South Korea and (since the 1990s) in China have been defined against Japan’s past colonialism and wartime aggression. Conservative Japanese politicians’ efforts to boost what they see as weak Japanese national pride put them into collision with these identity-forming national memories.
Then there are the conflicting sovereign claims to islands and maritime resources, fueled by both historical grievances and opportunism. In spite of strong regional economic ties, these territorial disputes and conflicts over national memories are likely to escalate. How can they be defused?
Some hope impartial committees of historians can dig East Asia out of this mess. But historians can only make limited headway against these conflicts, when they are not co-opted into them.
While national memories dress in the rhetoric of historical language, especially its “facts,” they are really just as much about the moral and spiritual values story tellers and their audiences invest into the actions of their ancestors; of heroic martyrdom, self-sacrifice, loyalty and courage.
Historians can help drive the worst inaccuracies out of their country’s national memories. But their training in sober, evidence-driven research does not really position them to debunk or to compete with stories of heroic forbears. If they try to, they risk being ignored at best, and denunciation or censorship at worst.
Now regional antagonisms will deepen if Abe and his allies continue their struggle to assert a past of righteous sacrifice by Japan’s Asia-Pacific war dead.
There is no resurgent militarism at the heart of their revisionism. There is instead a conviction that if Japanese are to rally around their democracy in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and a belligerent North Korea, they must have feelings of pride rather than shame for those who lost their lives in past wars.
The dead servicemen honored at Yasukuni must all be remembered as having sacrificed themselves righteously for their country, including those executed as war criminals.
Naturally, conservative politicians’ revisionism and Yasukuni Shrine visits are infuriating the Chinese and Koreans, and disturbing Japan’s allies. They are also divisive for the Japanese people. Many still cherish Japan’s postwar pacifist values, and regard Yasukuni as the stronghold of a discredited State Shinto cult.
This State Shinto cult is often overlooked in foreign media commentary, but it deserves closer scrutiny. In the 1930s, as militarism took hold, Yasukuni Shrine moved to the center of Japan’s spiritual life, and so did its deadly contract with Japan’s enlisted men.
In return for their unquestioning loyalty to the emperor as the head of this cult, they were promised enshrinement as heroic spirits (eirei) at Yasukuni if they died in action, to be honored by the emperor and the rest of Japan. Yasukuni Shrine still embraces State Shinto, and refuses to accept criticisms of Japan’s wartime conduct that might insult the spirits it enshrines.
The problem for Yasukuni and its allies is a historical burden shared with Germany that irretrievably darkens patriotic truisms about the war dead. They cannot credibly deny that Japan waged an atrocity-laden war of conquest between 1937 and 1945. Many Japanese, and most citizens in nations antagonistic to or even friendly to Japan, see nothing meaningful in the cause that over two million Japanese servicemen died for in the Asia-Pacific war.
So a predictable cycle drags on in which conservative politicians and loose cannons like Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto assert their revisionist convictions, suffer international condemnation and then retreat into insincere back-downs or tu quoque bluster.
Their obsession with overcoming shame at Japan’s wartime past also comes at the cost of overlooking what Japanese patriots should be proud of in Japan’s postwar era.
This was brought home to me seven years ago when I heard a story about my wife’s grandfather at his funeral. He had been a soldier in the Japanese Army, and one time during the war his transport ship was torpedoed and sunk. Covered in oil, he floated in the ocean for many hours before he was rescued.
He did not become a heroic spirit. He lived. After the war he married, started a family, and with his brothers formed an engineering company that contributed to the reconstruction of Japan, building supports for bridge foundations.
In the light of stories like this, Japan’s current prosperity and stable democracy can be said to be owed not to the war dead but to those men and women who survived, who rebuilt their country and who put their trust in the new democratic institutions of postwar Japan.
Through their self-sacrifice and faith they bequeathed something worth preserving to today’s Japanese.
If Japanese conservatives truly renounce revisionist nationalism and address themselves to this democratic inheritance, many outside of Japan could live with the other side of their agenda, of a more powerfully armed Japan taking an active role in maintaining regional and global security. Deprived of revisionist provocations, anti-Japanese nationalists would also be less able to play their historical victim cards.
We can only hope that politicians like Abe are smart enough to change their minds and take this course. For their dogmatic posturing can only stir up the swell of angry nationalisms in East Asia.
Shaun O’Dwyer, an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University, has published articles on war memory and historical revisionism in journals such as History and Memory, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
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