Sunday, January 19, 2014

Abe Goes to Yasukuni Jingu

         Last month the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, went to Yasukuni Shrine
(Jingu in Japanese) to pay his respects to the enshrined military dead. At first, I thought I had nothing to add to this story. After a few weeks of reading the same arguments over again, I realized I do have something to add: I find fault with the way English-language writers portray the Yasukuni issue and describe the shrine itself, I find fault with the difficulty we have with Yasukuni’s whole context, but I do not find fault with the rest of East Asia’s grievances over everything Yasukuni Jingu represents.
Whenever a Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni Shrine, one of the more common recurrent responses (besides outrage) is a befuddled ‘why?’ Why go through the same drama over and over again, risk the ill will of the neighbors, and endanger Japan’s foreign affairs. Well, Abe Shinzo, despite all the work he did on his visit around Southeast Asia last month, seems not to care how he comes across overseas. Or he is gambling that the states of Southeast Asia are worried enough about China to overlook the pain of war memories. It is an interesting contrast to Abe’s foreign policy actions from last fall. The deal over Okinawan bases announced last week would suggest that Abe and his advisors want to minimize the amount of risk they want to take.

Of course, Japanese politicians have long maintained that Yasukuni Jingu and other remembrance cases are purely domestic. They have a point, since other nations treat military memorials this way. The more foreigners tell Japanese prime ministers to stop visiting Yasukuni Jingu, and inserting themselves into a domestic issue, the more Yasukuni becomes a lightning rod for Japanese nationalists. In this light, visiting Yasukuni is not just about honoring those who gave their life for Japan, but about
showing foreigners they may not tell Japan what to do. What could be a more nationalist cause than that? On top of that, Japan has no national military cemeteries. Yasukuni Shrine serves that purpose for Japan. Leaders, even democratic ones, must pay their respects to fallen soldiers. Militaries act as a symbol of national unity. We imagine them to be the best of us, because they give of themselves for people they might never have the chance to meet, and might not even have liked. Failure to respect veterans is to disrespect the population. This is not to suggest that all Japanese want to see the Prime Minister go to Yasukuni. Plenty of people do not, and would rather never see it happen again. Others do not care one way or another. But Japanese voters have not punished any prime minister for visiting Yasukuni. For Abe and any other politician like him, they can satisfy their right-wing supporters and their own sensibilities by visiting Yasukuni without incurring a domestic electoral cost.
And then you have the view from the rest of Asia, and the West. Around Asia, Yasukuni Jingu represents the pain and horrors visited upon their grandfathers by Japan. Prime Ministers who visit Yasukuni are ultimately unrepentant for the years of domination and violence. Westerners tend to have a less emotional reaction to Yasukuni because we did not suffer as much. The Embassy of the United States to Japan issued a statement criticizing Abe for the visit. Other than that nothing more came from Washington. We usually do not respond as strongly as China or South Korea. Washington has nothing to gain from a fight over this shrine. Yet, Yasukuni Jingu was founded to comfort the souls of anyone who died in the service of the emperor. Western writers always mention the Class A war criminals like Tojo Hideki who are enshrined there, but it is not just the Class A war criminals enshrined there that are the problem.
Every foot soldier and officer is enshrined, deified and worshipped. Looking at Yasukuni from the outside, it becomes a monument to the totality of Japan’s wartime experience of the last two centuries. Remember, the rank and file committed plenty of atrocities of their own volition. Tojo himself did not go to Nanking.
When Japanese high officials pray at Yasukuni, they cheapen previous apologies. Apologies that Abe and some of his present cabinet ministers want to rewrite or retract. China and South Korea regularly complain that the Abe government is the rebirth of Japanese militarism, and any visit to Yasukuni is evidence that supports this fear. Abe has talked about expanding the Japanese Self-Defense Force in the past. If he were to do so, it would further alarm Japan’s neighbors alongside this Yasukuni visit and any others in the future. This is not a simple faux pas that will blow over eventually. The Yasukuni question will remain with us. The wounds it opens remain raw so long as the war is within living memory.

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