At what price Koizumi's homage to Japan's war dead . . .WENRAN JIANG
18 October 2005
The Globe and Mail
The setting is the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. The sole cast member is Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. And his ritual is to honour Japan's war dead, including thousands of convicted war criminals from the Second World War.
Mr. Koizumi's pilgrimage to the controversial Shinto site yesterday, his fifth such annual practice since taking office in 2001, is a staged act of defiance against growing domestic and international criticism. Only two weeks ago, a Japanese high court ruled that Mr. Koizumi's acts violated the constitutional separation of religion and state. Asian countries, former victims of Japanese militarism, have always opposed such a visit.
Mr. Koizumi's latest action pushed Japan's relations with its neighbours to a new low. The Chinese were particularly irritated by the timing — they were celebrating the return of their astronauts from a five-day, Earth-orbiting journey. While Seoul cancelled President Roh Moo-hyun's meeting with Mr. Koizumi at next month's APEC meeting, Beijing sent home Japanese diplomats attending high-level bilateral consultations and scrapped this weekend's visit by Japan's foreign minister.
The long-term damage to the region is much more severe. Unlike in Europe, where Germany's thorough reflection of history has led to continental reconciliation, East Asia has suffered from Japan's lack of remorse for its past wars. Yes, Japanese leaders have issued a number of apologies, including a statement that Mr. Koizumi read on Aug. 15, the date of Japan's defeat 60 years ago. But many remarks made by senior members of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan in the postwar era, have either rejected these apologies or undermined them.
To those who were victimized by Japanese militarism and to those who have a clear sense of history and justice, the annual visits to Yasukuni by Mr. Koizumi and a large number of Japanese parliamentarians simply make a mockery of their “deep remorse” rhetoric.
Mr. Koizumi and company justify the shrine visit as following Japanese culture and tradition. But Yasukuni is the creation of the Japanese state in the late 19th century for overseas expansion and imperialist war efforts. It was the designated institution for state Shinto indoctrination and the propaganda and mobilization centre of Japanese militarism; the sole purpose of its existence was to convince Japanese that, if they killed and died for the Emperor, their souls would be enshrined there. The Yasukuni culture is one of blind obedience to a totalitarian state, and the Yasukuni tradition is one of colonialism and imperialism through war and aggression.
Mr. Koizumi insists that he goes to Yasukuni only to show respect to those who sacrificed themselves for the country's prosperity today and to pray for peace. Yet, if one takes a tour of the state-of-the-art war museum attached to the shrine, it is clear that the shrine demands all those who pray there to live the way those enshrined there lived. And you find there a history in which Japan has done no wrong: All sacrifices were for Japan's defence, and for liberating Asians from white imperialism. The Yasukuni narrative of history is not the elimination of twisted nationalism but the revival of it. The Yasukuni notion of peace is to glorify war criminals as peace lovers. And the Yasukuni interpretation of sacrifice is the total rejection of the international war tribunal's verdict on Japan's war criminals.
Four years ago, in exchange for right-wing support for his bid as prime minister, Mr. Koizumi pledged to make annual visits to Yasukuni. He then manipulated the public's resentment of foreign criticism by presenting himself as standing tall. He managed to remain popular, and even received a majority in the latest lower-house election. Unfortunately, the very limited challenge Mr. Koizumi has faced domestically for his Yasukuni venture is also a reflection of Japan's failure as a nation to collectively face its past war responsibilities.
Internationally, Mr. Koizumi has lost credibility in Asia. On the other hand, while it is hard to imagine a German chancellor visiting a Nazi memorial and telling the world it's just for peace, Mr. Koizumi has escaped from much wider international condemnation.
“To go is hell; and not to go is hell, too,” Mr. Koizumi told his aides when trying to assess the fallout before his first official trip to Yasukuni in 2001. His gamble has certainly kept him at the edge of hell. But for the Japanese nation not to go over the edge with him, a path to the future must be constructed while the way to Yasukuni is firmly blocked.
Wenran Jiang, twice a Japan Foundation fellow, is associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta.