The latent danger in Abe's amnesia

With regional tensions escalating, Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine could not have come at a worse time.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has chosen the first anniversary of his rise to power to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honours war dead, including 14 convicted Class-A war criminals. The visit has invited sharp criticism from Koreans, Chinese and even Americans.

It could not have come at a worse time. The relationship between these countries is already at rock bottom over territorial disputes in the East China Sea and ill-feeling over the issue of Korean ‘comfort women’, who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during WWII.

Even Japan’s staunchest ally, the United States, is not happy with Abe’s provocative act. In a statement, the American embassy in Tokyo said: “The United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours.”  

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institute and a former US deputy secretary of state, said via Twitter: “Abe’s visit to Yasukuni shrine doesn’t just offend Chinese. War museum on premises is in-your-face apologia for aggression and Pearl Harbour.”

The convicted war criminals honoured at Yasukuni shrine include Tojo Hideki, the wartime prime minister who was behind the Pearl Harbour attack, and Akira Muto, who was responsible for the infamous Rape of Nanking.

The shrine is widely regarded in China and Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Emperor Hirohito stopped going to Yasukuni ever since convicted war criminals were enshrined there in 1978. This tradition has been followed by his son, the reigning monarch Akihito.

Abe’s decision to pay homage to the shrine has reopened one of the most contentious and longest running history wars in East Asia. Ian Buruma, a noted British scholar, considers Japanese prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni shrine akin to German chancellors paying their respects to an Adolf Hitler memorial.

Unlike Germany, Japan never went through a vigorous de-Nazification campaign after the war. Some Japanese – including senior political and military figures – still regard the verdicts of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – which was chaired by former Australian High Court justice Sir William Webb – as illegitimate.

The head of Japan’s air force, General Toshio Tamogami, was sacked in 2008 after he defended Japan’s aggression as “the Greater East Asia War” – a term used by right-wingers to describe the country’s attack against the Allies as a war of liberation against Western colonialism.

Some wartime Japanese leaders – including Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served as a cabinet minister in the Hideki Tojo government – not only escaped military justice but, at least in Kishi’s case, went on to become prime minister.

“It would be difficult even now to imagine an accused war criminal, as Mr Kishi has been, assuming the leadership of either of the Germanies,” said Kishi’s New York Times obituary in 1987.

Even the conservative German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung describes Abe’s visit as “calculated provocation”.

The testaments of Japan’s lack of self-examination are especially telling when compared with the profound soul-searching that Germany underwent, and these actions serve to undermine Japan’s otherwise impeccable record as a peace-loving and responsible member of the international community.

Article Nine of Japan’s pacifist constitution explicitly renounces war as an instrument of the state, and an overwhelming number of Japanese citizens’ support the pacifist policy. However, Abe regards the pacifist constitution as an unwanted legacy of the days of the American occupation and an obstacle preventing Japanese remilitarisation.

The force and sincerity of former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s heartfelt apology in 1995 – in which he expressed his “profound remorse for these acts of aggression, colonial rule and the like, which caused such unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people” – has also been undermined by Prime Minister Abe’s action.

It is not surprising that a Pew survey found only 2 per cent of Koreans and 6 per cent of Chinese have accepted Japan’s apology. Korean and Chinese presidents have both refused to meet with Prime Minister Abe at a time when dialogue is needed to reduce the heightened tension in the region.

Abe’s decision to visit the controversial shrine at this critical junction is a highly provocative act. James Fallows of The Atlantic wrote: “In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-US axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead.”

Japan has to come to terms with its past and reaffirm Prime Minister Murayama’s historic apology to the victims of the country’s aggression. Convicted war criminals have no place at a shrine that honours Japan’s fallen soldiers.

Follow Peter Cai on Twitter: @peteryuancai

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