TCS Daily

Allowing Time to Heal This Wound

By Jason Miks - February 1, 2006 12:00 AM

The best way of letting a wound heal is usually to avoid picking at it. But in relations with its neighbors, this is advice some Japanese politicians seem reluctant to heed. With what feels now like monotonous regularity, the issue of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine has once again reared up to exacerbate already tense relations between Japan and its neighbors.

On Sunday Japanese foreign minister Taro Aso said that he believed the emperor should visit the controversial shrine, a statement which took on added significance as Mr Aso is tipped as a serious contender to succeed Prime Minister Koizumi when he steps down in September.

Yasukini was built to commemorate and worship those who died in battle for their country and is supposed to honor those sacrificing themselves to build a peaceful Japan - indeed, Yasukini literally means "peaceful nation". However, in 1978, fourteen war criminals were added to the 2.5 million people enshrined there, including wartime Prime Minister Tojo Hideki.

The shrine has therefore become a symbol to some Asian countries -- and especially to China and South Korea -- of Japanese militarism and ultra nationalism; and they see repeated visits by officials as a refusal to accept responsibility for its war time actions. It's not helpful that the Shrine's museum and Website both make it clear that the Shrine does not regard the conduct of Japan during the World War II as an act of aggression but rather of heroic self-defense.

China cancelled a meeting with Japanese officials in response to Mr Koizumi's most recent visit, and Mr Aso's remarks drew strong words of condemnation from South Korea. Such tensions are bound to be of concern to Japan's closest ally, the United States, which will not want such instability in a region which is set to become increasingly important to US interests.

That Japan is a peaceful nation should not, of course, be in any doubt. It has worked hard to rehabilitate its image in the international community and is the second largest contributor to the United Nations as well as the second largest development aid donor. There is also a great deal of concern amongst the Japanese people themselves about even the prospect of changing war renouncing Article 9. In a democratic nation such as Japan it is therefore unlikely that the country will become a regional military bully.

But though Japan's actions over the last 20 years should speak more loudly than visits to a shrine, the Japanese government must also understand that perceptions can matter almost as much as reality in international politics. Japan must therefore go the extra mile in ensuring that no doubt can be cast upon its motivations -- and such includes officials ceasing visits to Yasukuni.

Prime Minister Koizumi is said to have won the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in April 2001 on a pledge to visit Yasukuni. This is a temptation his successor must avoid, for it is a mistake which has surely damaged Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and has contributed to dragging relations with China and South Korea to their lowest point for many years. Indeed Mr Aso seems aware of the furor that his comments caused and has since backed tracked from his earlier suggestion.

It is certainly arguable that as far as China is concerned that even if it wasn't Yasukuni visits then it would be something else. The two countries have a history of antagonism which is likely to become more complicated as China asserts itself economically. But there is no doubt that Yasukuni makes matters worse and the Japanese government should not needlessly present China a stick with which to beat it.

The flip side of any Japanese compromise on the Shrine visits is that China needs to accept that it too has a part to play in repairing relations. China's leaders have a stake in a stable Asia and cannot give the impression that they will find any opportunity to criticize Japan or help whip up nationalist sentiment as it seemed to during widespread protests last year.

Japan has apologized a number of times for its wartime actions, including most recently Mr Koizumi's apology last August in which he recognised the damage caused by Japanese aggression and colonialism towards other Asian nations. And there is nothing more likely to make a people balk at contrition over past actions than China's diplomatic equivalent of "say it like you mean it". The Second World War ended 60 years ago and two generations of Japanese have grown up under a peaceful and democratic constitution.

In the longer term, the Yasukuni Shrine issue will have to be resolved somehow -- perhaps by creating a new place to memorialize the dead, or removing the Class A war criminals to another location.

Such proposals have met resistance from Yasukuni, but the shrine should nonetheless be encouraged to put the interests of the country first. Adding fuel to a fire that hinders Japan's democratic and peaceful progress on the world stage through unnecessarily provoking its neighbors -- however difficult or hypocritical those neighbors might seem -- is surely not the best way to remember the dead.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.


1 Comment

PM Koizumi visits Yasukini Shrine to honor Japan's war dead
Question for you: if it offended the Germans and the Italians, should President Bush cease visiting Arlington National Cemetary?

Japanese strategic decisions were made by their leadership. One does not have to applaud their wartime leaders to say millions of Japanese served in their nation's armed forces with honor, giving the only lives they had. Those men deserve to be honored and screw what the Chinese think. China throughout its long history has been distinguished by how much innocent blood it is willing to shed. China is in no moral position to dictate to Japan. And I for one object to your insinuation that Japan is in some way America's vassal state, whose cultural decisions should be made in Washington's expedient halls.

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