Yasukuni in Context: Nationalism and History in Japan

Documents revealed in March that the Japanese government’s long-held position that it had nothing to do with the enshrinement of war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo wasn’t exactly, well, accurate. This week at Japan Focus, Akiko Takenaka has written a great update on these revelations. It’s published with an Asahi Shimbun editorial calling for the release of more documents and repeating its position that a secular memorial to war dead ought to be established—a position shared by an unlikely ally for the center-left daily, the center-right Yomiuri Shimbun. Japan Focus two years ago translated two editorials that represented an up-tick in momentum for that movement. It was significant to see the two largest newspapers in Japan (and in the world) agree for once on such a controversial issue.

I want to include an excerpt from Takenaka’s analysis, because it describes well why World War II reconciliation between Japan and its victims is so fraught. No single issue, not even Yasukuni, is the linchpin of tension over history.

Many, particularly international critics, have pointed out that the heart of the Yasukuni problem is the Japanese government’s glorification of its military past and reluctance to accept responsibility for its wartime deeds. State patronage of Yasukuni is intimately related to LDP efforts to revise the Constitution in order to strengthen Japan’s war-making powers. But simple removal of the physical structure of Yasukuni, or disenshrinement of the war criminals, will not resolve the Yasukuni problem. Let me explain. Many Japanese who are critical of the war and of Japanese war crimes, focus their criticisms on the shrine itself, including state involvement in the shrine, and the failure of the state to adequately provide apology and reparations to Asian victims of Japan’s wartime aggression and war crimes. In the process, like the new postwar generation of nationalists who currently lead the LDP, they fail to question the war responsibilities of the Japanese people, including their parents and grandparents – or, even themselves, for their reluctance to initiate a sincere dialogue on making amends. The ultimate solution to the problems associated with Yasukuni Shrine and crimes of war can only be resolved when both state and people accept responsibility and act to put the dark episodes of the war behind them through sincere apologies, reparations, and education of the next generations of Japanese.

The political hack in me wonders what kind of deal might be struck to satisfy some Japanese voters’ nationalist emotions while backing off of the rhetoric and actions that draw so much diplomatic criticism from China, South Korea, and other countries. If Japanese nationalists truly desire to make their nation a “normal country” in international affairs, perhaps they could lose some of the bravado displayed by implicit glorification of Japan’s aggressive past. Indeed, objectives such as gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council might meet less opposition if, to paraphrase Chinese government statements in April 2005, Japan faced up to its history.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine such a compromise is a realistic possibility; nationalism in Japan, as anywhere, is not often so cold and calculated as to cede ground on issues of pride in favor of more concrete gains. And it’s not necessarily safe to assume China would stop opposing Japan in the UNSC example just because leaders shunned Yasukuni.

What emerges from this line of reasoning is the possibility that concrete political moves such as UNSC membership or Article 9 revision are fundamentally secondary to questions of national pride. Perhaps liberals in Japan could achieve some of their goals by wrapping pacifism in the flag. If only that could work in both Japan and the United States, we’d be in business.

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  • Y A Li

    This analyses is right, particularly with regard to the Japanese national pride. Nevertheless Japan’s relationship with her neighbors (Korea, China, Philipin etc.) cannot improve until she is able to own up to her war crimes. Such action should not conflict with national pride. The Germans have done so and have continued to maintain prominence on the world stage.