Here’s the main reason I will always feel a little bit sorry for anyone in the prime minister position in Japan: They will have to decide, every year, how to deal with what is probably the most public, and most closely internationally watched, act of national mourning in the world. The choice is to either visit the Yasukuni Shrine, or not.
The controversy in a nutshell:
Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja) is a Shinto shrine located in Tokyo, Japan, dedicated to the spirits of soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan. In October 2004, its Book of Souls listed the names of 2,466,532 men and women, including 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans, whose lives were dedicated to the service of Imperial Japan, particularly to those killed in wartime.
The shrine is a source of considerable controversy. Included in the Book of Souls are 1,068 people convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court. A total of 12 convicted and 2 suspected Class A war criminals (“crime against peace”) are enshrined at Yasukuni. The shrine’s history museum contains an account of Japan’s actions in World War II, which is considered revisionist by many outside of Japan.
Visits to the shrine by cabinet members have been a cause of protest at home and abroad. China, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan have protested against various visits since 1985. Despite the controversy, the former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made annual visits from 2001 to 2006.
Indeed, Koizumi’s visits spawned protests every year, just like clockwork. He sparked lawsuits in 2001, impacted international relations in 2002, strained relations with China and S. Korea in 2003 and 2005, and stoked anger in 2006, when he actually visted on the anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender. And those are only a few of the articles that were produced every year. His own statements said that he went to pray against the return of war, but many people (particularly in other countries) see any acknowledgement of the shrine as a celebration of the nationalistic militarism that led them into WWII.
Shinzo Abe, by contrast, did not choose to visit the shrine. This should have rendered him safe on the issue, yes? Of course not. A Japanese political activist cut off his finger and mailed it to Abe, with a letter. Granted, Abe’s refusal to visit may have been preferred by his Asian neighbors, but it still wasn’t the right answer for everyone.
Here’s the thing to me. Japan has to deal with the fact that 2.5 million of their people died in war. The shrine’s been there since 1869; it doesn’t only honor the dead of WWII. What’s more, of those 2.5 million dead souls, only 12 of them are convicted WWII Class A war criminals (+2 who were suspected.) Their souls are by far in the minority there, so why make the shrine only symbolize them? Regardless of what people around the world think about Japanese behavior in WWII, not every soldier was a war criminal and committed atrocities, and all of them had family and friends who would feel the need to mourn their deaths in some way.
And I don’t really understand why there is so much criticism of the history museum at the shrine. From the Wikipedia entry again:
Yasukuni Shrine also operates a museum of the history of Japan (the Yūshūkan, 遊就館) which some observers have criticized as presenting a revisionist interpretation. A documentary-style video shown to museum visitors portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the pre-World War II period as an effort to save the region from the imperial advances of Western powers. Displays portray Japan as a victim of foreign influence, especially Western pressure.
A pamphlet published by the shrine says: “War is a really tragic thing to happen, but it was necessary in order for us to protect the independence of Japan and to prosper together with our Asian neighbors.” It also says that Japanese POWs executed for war crimes were “cruelly and unjustly tried” by a “sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces.”
Having just finished John Dower’s account of Japan during the post-war period, Embracing Defeat, I have to say, that all sounds pretty accurate to me. Those were the Japanese leaders’ reasons for agression against their Asian neighbors at the time. They did feel economically threatened. It’s pretty obvious now that those weren’t good reasons, but they were the reasons nonetheless. Should the museum instead present the reasons the rest of the world ascribed to the Japanese? Would that be less “revisionist?” And Dower’s chapter on the war crimes tribunal held in Japan makes it pretty clear that the whole thing was a farce, just a show trial, with a great deal of factionalization amongst the judges and dominated overall by the US. What’s more, so what if the shrine’s museum does present a more nationalistic viewpoint? It’s a viewpoint. The shrine isn’t affiliated with the government. Should we deny that there are people who feel this way? Isn’t that, in many ways, more dangerous than knowing what they think?
Another thing highlighted by Dower’s book is the sheer amount of censorship the US forces exercised during the years of occupation, which directly contribute to anger other Asian nations feel toward Japan to this day. Many of the internal Japanese publications and private writings indicate that the Japanese public was extremely shocked and shamed by revelations of the atrocities their troops had committed during the war. But under MacArthur and his censorship bureau, there was no national or international (at least for the Japanese) discussion of these issues allowed, no sense of closure to be formed on an international stage, and therefore no acts of apology or reparation were seen as forthcoming until it was years later, and none of the countries involved could feel like such actions were truly meaningful anymore.
The protests held by the general public every time politicians propose changing the pacifist parts of the constitution indicate, at least to me, that there aren’t a lot of regular Japanese people who think war is an acceptable answer to solving problems anymore. Many people I met there, saw on the news when I lived there, and have taught as exchange students in the US since then have a huge amount of pride in their country’s committment to pacifism. Ironically, it is other countries that are putting pressure on the political leaders of Japan to change that (primarily the US,) at the same time that they act appalled if the PM visits the war dead shrine.
I guess my own feeling is that this is all blown completely out of proportion by all the international attention. At this point, 62 years removed from the end of WWII, I think it’s time to let Japan deal with its own war dead. Leaders of other countries who choose to get outraged about whether or not the PM visits Yasukuni are doing just that, choosing to be outraged. Does it serve any real purpose? If there was evidence that the PM was trying to whip up nationalistic militarism for aggressive purposes, sure, get mad. But if anything, it was the PM who most recently chose not to who encouraged more of that attitude.
-posted by Dana