from Asia Unbound

Why Resurrect the Divisive Politics of Yasukuni?

April 26, 2013

Japan's deputy prime minister Taro Aso (2nd R) bows as he visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo April 21, 2013 (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters).
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Just as I thought I could put the finishing touches on my book manuscript, Japanese Domestic Politics and the Rise of China (Columbia University Press), which has a chapter on Yasukuni, the issue erupted again to confound Japan’s diplomatic relations.

The revival of Yasukuni Shrine visits presents a serious diplomatic setback for Tokyo. The costs have been high and the benefits hard to find. (Jennifer Lind wrote a great piece on this in March before this week’s headlines.)

More importantly, it reveals the reactive nationalisms afoot in Northeast Asia that are dangerous and unpredictable.

The debate over Yasukuni is fraught with political tensions, even within Japan. There are some who would liken it to America’s Arlington Cemetery, but this is wrong. There are no deep divisions in the United States over Arlington, or over those who lie there. Postwar Japanese however have been deeply ambivalent about the politics of Yasukuni Shrine, and the effort to try to give it the same standing as Arlington cemetery—to legally designate it as a national war memorial—has been defeated over and over again in the Japanese parliament on the grounds that the Shinto shrine violated the postwar Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Yasukuni Shrine also carries the stigma of state secrecy and complicit activism. The inclusion of the Class-A war criminals was done furtively in 1978 at the behest of a Yasukuni Shrine official, Nagayoshi Matsudaira. When the Japanese media found out almost a year later, it reignited the emotional differences between left and right over the proper place for commemorating Japan’s defeat and the losses, both civilian and military, the nation suffered. It is significant that Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, who had presided over the invasion of China and the Pacific War, stopped visiting Yasukuni Shrine once the Class-A war criminals were included.

The annual ceremony presided over by the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and attended by the prime minister and his cabinet, continues to be the place of preference for commemorating August 15 among the Japanese public. In Japanese, August 15 is referred to as the day World War II ended (終戦記念日); the official commemoration is referred to as "the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace" (戦歿者を追悼し平和を祈念する日).

Previous prime ministers have sought to demonstrate their sympathy with Japan’s Imperial veterans by visiting Yasukuni on August 15. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Yasukuni Shrine in 1984/5 and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promised Japan’s veterans families that he would do so as well. Koizumi finally realized his promise in 2006, his fifth year in office. Nakasone and Koizumi both confronted the outrage of China and South Korea when they visited, and the balancing act between their desire to satisfy their conservative followers and to maintain good relations with neighboring countries proved extraordinarily difficult.

The Koizumi years proved salutary, however, for the national conversation in Japan over war responsibility and Yasukuni Shrine’s place in the national commemoration of Japan’s war dead. As chief cabinet secretary under Koizumi, Yasuo Fukuda led a task force to consider an alternative national memorial, one that would not be of a religious nature. Former prime minister Taro Aso also advocated for a national secular memorial when he ran for the leadership of his party, and thus his visit to Yasukuni as deputy prime minister this week seems puzzling.

Not all of those whose family members died in World War II find solace in the politicization of Yasukuni. During the Koizumi-era debate, the idea that the Emperor of Japan could visit Yasukuni seemed more important to some families of Japan’s war dead than the prime minister’s visit.

Likewise many Japanese were forced to consider the question of war responsibility. A Yomiuri Shimbun series of articles prompted a national conversation, and even those with longstanding and deep differences over the question of Japan’s history—the leading editorial writers of the Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun respectively—got together to discuss the assumptions in their positions on the war and on how it shapes Japanese postwar national identity.

Yet this remains an incomplete conversation, one that today has become deeply entwined with Yasukuni Shrine’s role as a symbol of conservative nationalism. For others, Yasukuni Shrine has become a symbol of Japan’s inability to make a break with its past, and to fully allow the generation who died in the war—civilians and those who wore the Emperor’s uniform—to be given a place where all Japanese can honor them.

Yasukuni Shrine visits have always been steeped in politics. The domestic debate over Yasukuni prompted by Koizumi’s pledge to his followers in many ways encouraged a healthy conversation about topics that had long been too difficult for many Japanese to address. But it did not legitimize the practice. Since then, many individual politicians have made their own trips to Yasukuni, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has visited on several occasions although not as prime minister.

But there is a new edge to the domestic activism on Yasukuni this week.

Nationalism seems to beget nationalism among the nations of Northeast Asia, and political leaders should find little comfort in the growing popular sensitivities in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo to perceived slight and impugned motive. The diplomatic protest, and cancellation of the visit to Tokyo by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, seemed to invite a reaction in kind. The defiant march into Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday, sponsored by the Let’s Go to Yasukuni Together group of politicians, was clearly meant as a political signal to Japan’s neighbors.

Even the language used in Japan’s parliament to the effect that Japanese won’t be intimidated suggested a new reactive motive for Yasukuni Shrine visits, a motive that many of us outside the country find difficult to understand.

Tokyo today needs to look outward, to find common cause with its friends in Asia and across the globe, rather than retreat into isolation. Postwar Japan’s accomplishments, not the divisive symbols of its past, should continue to guide its choices. Japan’s postwar generation, conservatives and liberals alike, embraced a new future with different values, and created the tremendous energy needed to lead their nation into a different era.

Rather than turn to defiant gestures, Japan’s contemporary political leaders—conservative and liberal alike—must have the courage to lead the way to firmer ground upon which to base their children and grandchildren’s future. Yasukuni may always be the place of commemoration for a generation of Japanese who seek to honor their family members who fought in the name of the Emperor.

But for the Japan of today, the nation that has committed itself to avoiding war and building peace and democratic values, perhaps the time has come to embrace Mr. Fukuda’s plan for the construction of an alternative memorial, one where all Japanese and non-Japanese can honor those who gave their lives for their country.