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New York Times June 22, 2005
A War Shrine, for a Japan Seeking a Not Guilty Verdict
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
TOKYO – One recent rainy morning, a couple of dozen vehicles belonging to the Patriotic Youth League and other Japanese right-wing groups gathered inside the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto memorial to Japan’s war dead. “Revere the Emperor,” read a slogan on one truck. Others alluded to enemies unnamed: “Love and Protect our Motherland” and “Kill one, one at a time.”
At 12:30 p.m., the caravan spilled out onto Tokyo’s streets, destination unclear. But the targets are usually the same: the Chinese Embassy, the liberal media, anybody daring to challenge the argument that Japan’s wars were legitimate and that their leaders were not criminals. Yasukuni Shrine is the symbolic center of Japan’s efforts to revise its militaristic past, and lies at the heart of worsening relations between Japan and its neighbors. Not only right-wing extremists, but now also mainstream politicians and the news media are more openly arguing that the 14 war criminals enshrined in Yasukuni were not guilty – and, because they were not, Japan’s wars could not have been that bad.
In a face-to-face meeting on June 20, for example, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi steadfastly resisted the entreaties of President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea that he stop visiting the shrine and build an alternate one that would be more acceptable to China and the Koreas, all of them victims of a brutal Japanese colonization.
While the Japanese have received the bulk of the criticism for the shrine, they are not, however, the only ones to have manipulated the meaning of Yasukuni and its war criminals. So have the Chinese, the Taiwanese and the Americans, each according to their own interests.
During America’s six-year occupation of Japan after World War II, Americans spent the first half democratizing the country and prosecuting war criminals. In the second half, with Communists controlling China and the cold war bearing down, Washington reversed course: wartime leaders were rehabilitated overnight in an effort to make Japan strong. Some Class A war criminal suspects, after barely escaping the noose, became postwar Japan’s political and business leaders; one, Nobusuke Kishi, even became prime minister.
The mixed messages from America – as well as the highly politicized Tokyo Trials that tried the Japanese leaders but avoided mentioning Emperor Hirohito, whom America had decided not to depose – laid the seeds of confusion here. They also left open the door for the Japanese to argue that the overall verdict – that Japan had led a war of aggression – was also false.
“It was a war of self-defense,” Yuko Tojo, the granddaughter of the wartime prime minister who was executed as a Class A war criminal and is enshrined in Yasukuni, said in a telephone interview. “China claims it is unforgivable that the head of state visits Yasukuni, where those responsible for causing trouble by conducting a war of aggression are enshrined. But if we agree with China, it would mean that we recognize it as a war of aggression. So we can’t”
Visits to Yasukuni have long been regarded as coded endorsements of conservative nationalist views like hers. Indeed, when Mr. Koizumi said two weeks ago that he actually recognized the validity of the Tokyo Trials, the nation’s largest-selling newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, which does not, was flabbergasted. “With what view of history has Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine in the past?” it asked in an editorial, adding that if Mr. Koizumi accepted the trials’ rulings, “then Koizumi should not visit Yasukuni Shrine.”
Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869, as part of Japan’s drive to create a nationalistic state religion centered around a divine emperor. By the end of World War II, almost 2.5 million soldiers would be enshrined here for giving their lives for the emperor. Except for two civil conflicts, the other nine wars in which the soldiers died all revolved around Japan’s advance into China, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan
and, ultimately, its attack on the United States.
Yasukuni’s war museum argues that America forced Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor as a way of shaking off the Depression, saying that “the U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war.” A video shown at the museum, called “We Won’t Forget,” describes America’s postwar occupation of Japan as “pitiless.” But the museum makes no mention of Japan’s own occupation of Asia. As for the Rape of Nanjing, the museum blames the Chinese commander and adds that, thanks to Japanese actions, “inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”
In a written statement, Yasukuni officials said, “The exhibition is not based on any special historical viewpoint, but is based on clear evidence.”
Yasukuni’s view of history is one that few Asians or Americans would accept. But like Japanese politicians, foreigners also appear to recognize the shrine’s political value.
Shu Ching Chiang, a Taiwanese lawmaker who is pro-independence and anti-China, visited Yasukuni in April. Taiwanese soldiers who served Japan’s Imperial Army during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan are also enshrined in Yasukuni.
“Every country has the right to pay respect to its war dead in the way it chooses,” Mr. Shu said in a recent interview in Taipei. Like many Japanese, he compared Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery.
Arthur Ding, an international relations expert at National Chengchi University in Taipei, decoded Mr. Shu’s trip: “He delivered a message to Japan that his party wants a close relationship with Japan and to China that they are for Taiwanese independence.”
While the Chinese and the South Koreans have legitimate reasons to oppose the shrine, they have been accused of using it to shore up domestic support by appealing to nationalist sentiments.
Noticeable in its silence on Yasukuni and the verdict on the Class A war criminals is the United States. As the nation that defeated Japan, occupied it and still has 50,000 troops deployed here, America is the one country that Japan may still listen to on these subjects. America is hardly a disinterested observer, after all, because Yasukuni deifies Japanese who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.
American officials raise an eyebrow at Japanese comparisons of Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery. But they tend to defend, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, Japanese visits to Yasukuni, or maintain a studied silence. The cold war may be over, but China’s rise alarms America just as much as did the rise of Communism in the 1940’s. So better a strong, remilitarized Japan, no matter what the Japanese say about Yasukuni or war criminals.
USATODAY Posted 6/22/2005 10:03 PM Updated 6/24/2005 7:01 AM
Tokyo shrine a focus of fury around Asia
By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY
TOKYO–One of Asia’s biggest trouble spots is a peaceful place hidden away in the heart of Tokyo, a refuge from skyscrapers and traffic.
At the Yasukuni Shrine, couples take romantic walks beneath cherry trees, schoolchildren feed fish in a pond and aging war veterans remember fallen friends.
It’s those old memories that are causing problems.
To many Japanese, the Yasukuni Shrine is no different from Arlington National Cemetery in the USA: a place to honor their war dead. They don’t understand why people in other Asian countries are so furious about Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the shrine. “It must be a lack of communication,” says Kimura Takashi, 29, an acupuncturist visiting Yasukuni recently with his girlfriend.
China, South Korea and other Asian countries occupied and brutalized by imperial Japanese military forces decades ago see Koizumi’s defiant visits as a symbol of Japan’s refusal to show remorse for its bloody past. The sore point: In 1978, Yasukuni, operated by a private Shinto religious foundation, secretly enshrined 14 “Class A” war criminals convicted by an international tribunal after World War II.
The controversy over the shrine (and over textbooks that whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities) is having diplomatic consequences for Japan and rattling nerves across Asia. Ill will over the past spoiled Koizumi’s summit Monday with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun in Seoul.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported Tuesday that Roh scolded Koizumi: “No matter how you explain your visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, it is understood as justifying Japan’s past for me and for the people of Korea.”
Anti-Japanese riots broke out across China this spring, threatening Japanese business interests there. In May, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi canceled plans to meet Koizumi and abruptly ended a fence-mending trip to Japan. The snub came a week after Koizumi said other countries shouldn’t interfere in the way Japan chooses to honor its dead.
Criticism of Koizumi’s visits is coming from inside Japan, too. A poll by the MainichiDaily News last weekend found that 50% of Japanese oppose Koizumi’s shrine visits, up from 45% in an April survey. A front-page commentary in the Asahi newspaper this month warned that the visits jeopardize Japan’s bid to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Top Japanese politicians, including former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and the speaker of Japan’s lower house of parliament, have urged Koizumi to rethink the visits.
The shrine’s caretakers try to keep a distance from the controversy. “The problems of history I leave to the historians,” Yasukuni spokesman Shingo Oyama says.
The shrine was built in 1869 to commemorate soldiers killed in a Japanese civil war. It covers 22 acres and honors nearly 2.5 million killed in conflicts from the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) to World War II.
No one is buried at Yasukuni. Instead the spirits, or kami, of the dead are honored there. Ordinary visitors pass through a large torii, or entrance gate, and stop before the worship hall to pray for the dead.
Official visits such as Koizumi’s occur in the main hall. Visitors purify their hands and mouths in a water fountain. They follow a Shinto priest who wears long robes and a shiny black hat with a thin chin strap. He stops in a quiet hallway to ask the gods to purify visitors’ souls. Visitors then ascend some steps to the main altar. They lay down sprigs from the sacred sakaki tree, kneel in prayer, bow twice, clap twice and bow again. As they leave, visitors drink from a shallow cup containing holy sake called omiki.
Yasukuni, which means “peaceful nation,” is supposed to be a place to reflect on the sorrow of war. But the keepers of the shrine clearly are more sensitive to Japan’s suffering than the suffering Japan inflicted on others.
The Yasukuni Web site explains the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the invasions of China and Southeast Asia this way: “To maintain the independence and peace of the nation and for the prosperity of all Asia, Japan was forced into conflict.” The shrine unapologetically describes the 14 war criminals as martyrs who were “unjustly tried as war criminals by a sham-like tribunal of allied forces.”
Richard Minear, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of a 1971 book on the Tokyo Tribunal, notes that the Class A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, did not commit atrocities themselves.
“The Tokyo defendants were selected mainly for their role in the prosecution of the war,” Minear says. “The charge was that ‘aggressive war’ itself — whatever that is — was a crime.”
Outside Japan, the furor over Yasukuni reflects a resurgence of nationalism across Asia. Chinese leaders stoke anti-Japanese sentiment to promote patriotism and justify their own monopoly on power, says historian Akinori Takamori of Takushoku University.
The South Korean government likewise has “brought a fierce ethnocentric consciousness into power,” says political analyst Michael Cucek of the consultancy Okamoto Associates.
Looking for motives
So why does Koizumi visit Yasukuni despite the furor?
Cucek suggests that Koizumi is currying favor with right-wing Japanese politicians whose support he needs to implement his policies, particularly the privatization of Japan’s postal system.
According to JoongAng Ilbo, the South Korean daily, Koizumi promised Roh, the president, that Japan would consider building a war memorial unburdened by the presence of the souls of war criminals. But Koizumi watchers doubt that he’ll back down.
“He revels in behaving outrageously,” Cucek says. After Chinese official Wu’s snub in May, he says, “Koizumi could hardly suppress a smile. … He was clearly savoring her chutzpah.”
At the shrine, retired car dealer Masaru Inagaki, 70, says: “He won’t stop coming because he has a strong character.
“He’s really stubborn.”