Tag Archives: Yasukuni Jinja

Five Years of Transpacifica: Five New Japanese Prime Ministers

I’m in transit these days, moving for the time being from Seattle to New York. This is a perfect opportunity to look back on what I’ve written in this space since I started here just over five years ago, on Aug. 18, 2006. Looking back, I found some early speculation about what Aso Taro, then foreign minister, would do if he became prime minister of Japan.

This blog began as “Transpacific Triangle,” focusing specifically on the relations among the three largest Pacific powers: the United States, Japan, and China. In 2006, I had studied Japanese in college and in Japan, and I had just spent a ton of energy understanding the April 2005 anti-Japan protests in China for my undergraduate thesis.

Since then, we have seen five Japanese prime ministers, and a sixth is on deck: Noda Yoshihiko.

Aso Taro didn’t become prime minister back when he was running for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2006. As expected, Abe Shinzō took over in Sept. 2006 after Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s long term. Aso did have his turn, however, two leaders later in 2008.

What’s striking looking back is how little anyone talks about the Yasukuni Shrine issue anymore. Sino-Japanese nationalism is more pronounced these days over issues like the supply of rare earth elements—though a Xinhua report did strike a relatively stern note instructing the incoming Prime Minister Noda on how to act.

Take a look at what we used to be worried about (from my post of Aug. 21, 2006):

The same day that he declared his candidacy for LDP president (and presumably prime minister) Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro said he would work to improve ties with China and South Korea if he becomes prime minister. Aso is viewed as a long-shot candidate in the Sept. 20 election, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo the presumptive winner.

“Having no meetings between leaders at all is a distorted form of diplomacy and we must correct this,” Aso said, according to Reuters. Aso has been more flexible than Abe on the Yasukuni Shrine question. He has even proposed that the shrine be re-nationalized as a secular war memorial. Some have remarked that the proposal is insane, but to my mind, Aso has apparently been relatively shrewd in his handling of the Yasukuni issue. By renationalizing the shrine, the government would wrest control of the symbolic site from the private Shinto authorities who enshrined the war criminals in the first place and currently administer the controversial Yushukan war museum.

Meanwhile, Aso struck a familiar nationalist note when announcing his proposal, saying “the tens of thousands of soldiers who died crying ‘Long Life to the Emperor’ filled those words with deep emotion, so I strongly pray that the emperor can visit Yasukuni.” This last statement is no personal sentiment. The special status of Yasukuni Shrine as the place where the emperor, who was at the time considered holy, prayed for war dead was fundamental to its rise in importance during what Japan called the Greater East Asian War. When the Meiji authorities built the shrine on Kudan Hill, across the street from the imperial palace grounds, proximity to the emperor was key.

By taking control away from the Shinto authorities and at the same time encouraging an emperor’s visit, Aso might be appealing to both sides of the Yasukuni debate. Abe appeals only to the nationalists on the issue.
But there is still no indication that disenshrining the war criminals is possible, and even before he introduced this new plan, Aso was agitating for Emperor Akihito to visit the shrine. If Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine after it was tarnished by the war criminals (as was recently confirmed by newly available documents), why would Akihito reverse this decision?

Over the next few days, I’ll cue up some other past posts, not necessarily this old. Much has changed in five years, but much has remained the same. If I have some peace and quiet, I might even do a “why I blog” post like Climate Progress has for its fifth year.

 

Top Japanese Officials Not Among Politicians Visiting Yasukuni

Tis the season for Yasukuni Shrine visits. Between 62 (per Mainichi) and more than 150 (per AP) Japanese lawmakers visited the shrine on the traditional occasion of the spring holiday. But Jun Okumura notes that none of the very top leaders were among them:

The AP report does tell you that “Prime Minister Fukuda did not attend”. What it doesn’t tell you, though, is that Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura, and Shigeru Ishiba also didn’t go. Call them the Big Four–the Chinese authorities told the Koizumi administration that if they stayed away, it would be okay with them (if not with the South Koreans). Prime Minister Koizumi wouldn’t listen, but the Abe administration did. So has the Fukuda administration, but that’s no surprise; there aren’t that many people in the LDP to Mr. Fukuda’s left, as far as foreign relations is concerned. No. The real news is that no Cabinet member joined the Yasukuni-fest, and how often do you see that happen?

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.

Who's the Bigger Nationalist: Abe or Koizumi?

Ampontan criticizes English-language media for their “[m]indlessly parroted assumptions based on conventional wisdom” that lead to their labeling Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as a “nationalist.” The entry notes Abe’s hands-off approach thus far on the disputed island situations with Korea and Russia as evidence that he is no “hawkish nationalist.” Observing Japan, on the other hand, argues that, for a variety of reasons, Abe can reasonably be called a nationalist:

What makes Abe a nationalist has little if anything to do with his ideas about Japan’s place in the world and more to do with his vision of Japanese society. In short, Abe and his allies in the LDP want to use the state to recreate a more unified Japan as a means of coping with the problems Japan will face in the twenty-first century. What makes Abe a nationalist is his desire to forge (or re-forge) a kind of dynamic unity among the Japanese people, under the rule of the emperor, of course. As he said in his debate with Ozawa Ichiro this week, “If Japan’s long history, traditions and cultures can be likened to a tapestry that the Japanese people have been weaving, the emperor is the warp.”

An interesting question if we’re talking about Japanese nationalism in a historical sense is whether Abe or Koizumi is indeed the bigger nationalist. The nation-building (i.e. unifying) efforts by the Meiji government prominently featured the symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine, and they used Yasukuni as a place to show off Japan’s new pride in regarding itself as a modern nation. The shrine was strategically located on a Kudan Hill, which then separated upper- and lower-class areas of Tokyo, with the idea of symbolizing unity. Kudan Hill is also conveniently right across the street from the Imperial Palace Grounds, lest you would forget how important the emperor was to the emerging Japanese nation-state. (An excellent source for the early history of the shrine is Akiko Takenaka’s dissertation on Meiji nationalist architecture: Takenaka-O’Brien, Akiko. “The Aesthetics of Mass Persuasion: War and Architectural Sites in Tokyo, 1868-1945.” Yale University, 2004.)

As we know, Koizumi spent much more time and international political capital than Abe has in paying tribute to Japan’s late 19th—early 20th century nationalism. But Abe has spent more energy on a more contemporary and more instrumental form of nationalism, the revision of Article 9. The rhetoric behind constitutional revision—especially among the people usually called “nationalists”—often invokes the desire for Japan to become a “normal state.”

Indeed, as currently constituted, Japan lacks one of the main characteristics of an independent sovereign state: the ability to use force or the threat of force as an instrument of foreign policy. The result is a relationship with the United States that puts its status somewhere in the area between protectorate and strategic ally. Though Japan could theoretically cast off U.S. ties without changing its constitution, the security environment makes this highly unlikely. Changing the constitution would, for better or for worse, strengthen Japan’s independence as a state.

So my verdict: People like Abe who favor constitutional revision are “practical nationalists,” whereas people like Koizumi who pay tribute to late 19th century nationalist traditions are “sentimental nationalists.”

A Warning on Yasukuni: Out of Nowhere?

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in an interview with Kyodo gave a standard warning against any visit by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to the Yasukuni Shrine leading up to Wen’s visit to Tokyo next week. This would not be the least bit surprising, except that Abe hasn’t visited the shrine since taking office. Either Wen has information that Abe might consider a visit, or he has other people to satisfy with a tiny bit of tough talk on Japan leading up to his visit.

Beats me.