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Monday, August 27, 2018, 16:14
Shrine that fuels regional tension
By Cai Hong
Monday, August 27, 2018, 16:14 By Cai Hong

Abe sidesteps Yasukuni visit, but Japan’s ties will remain strained as long as politicians frequent controversial site

Aug 15 is a special day across Asia as it marks the anniversary of Japan’s surrender — “end” is the word used in Japan — in World War II. Asian nations observe the day for their liberation from Japan’s aggression or colonization.

Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors more than 2.5 million war dead, is a place where, on that day, many Japanese people mourn the fallen.

But high-ranking Japanese politicians’ visits to the Shinto shrine can cost Japan substantially in its relations with China and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Among its dead, the shrine honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

For decades, the shrine has been a hotbed for criticism by countries that suffered under Japanese imperialism during the first half of the 20th century.

Refraining from a visit to the controversial shrine on Aug 15 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering instead. For two consecutive years, Abe and his cabinet members have not paid homage at the site.

Masahiko Shibayama, chief deputy secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), made the offering on Abe’s behalf. Shibayama said the prime minister asked him to pray for the souls of the departed and that Abe regretted being unable to pay his respects in person.

Abe knows the politics of Yasukuni visits. By donating money, he walked a tightrope of pleasing the conservative voters who support Yasukuni visits and trying not to upset China and the ROK.

He does not want a Yasukuni pilgrimage to become a controversy in the upcoming LDP presidential election on Sept 20. Nor does he want to ruin his chance of making his first official visit to China, on Oct 23, which would mark the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan.

Destinations on his itinerary would be Shenzhen, the southern city famous for its IT businesses boom, and Xi’an, the eastern starting point of the ancient Silk Road. Abe’s China visit, if it goes ahead, will be the first for a Japanese prime minister since 2011.

And Abe expects President Xi Jinping to pay an official visit to Japan when leaders of the G20 countries will gather together in Osaka in June 2019.

The China-Japan relationship is improving after Premier Li Keqiang paid an official visit to Japan in May, the first for a Chinese premier in eight years. Both sides are trying to keep the thorny issues under control.

Abe also knows the detrimental effects of Yasukuni visits on Japan’s diplomacy with its neighbors. In December 2013, one year after Abe led the LDP to a landslide victory in the 2012 general election, his pilgrimage to the shrine angered Beijing, Seoul and even Washington.

Abe wants to woo Seoul’s support in solving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the 1970s and 80s.

But Abe is under great pressure as his supporters’ calls for him to visit the Yasukuni Shrine are loud. Several of his cronies including Shibayama, the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general Koichi Hagiuda, and former Japanese education minister Hakubun Shimomura, made pilgrimage to the shrine — and they can be taken as proxies for Abe.

The late Japanese Emperor Hirohito stopped paying respects to the country’s war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine because of his displeasure over the enshrinement of top war criminals in 1978.

A document written by one of the emperor’s closest aides shows that Hirohito shared concerns that the shrine was sullied by the inclusion of the 14 Class-A war criminals deemed most responsible for leading Japan into WWII. Hirohito’s successor, Emperor Akihito, has never visited the shrine.

On Aug 15, both Akihito and Abe attended an official ceremony for mourning Japan’s war dead. In contrast to Akihito who called for “reflecting on our past” and “bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse”, Abe expressed “respect and gratitude”. 

“We will not forget even for a moment that the peace and prosperity we enjoy today was built atop the precious sacrifices of the war dead,” Abe said in a speech stopping short of Japan’s war responsibility.

Instead, he highlighted postwar Japan. “Since the end of the war, Japan has consistently and assiduously walked the path of a country that values peace,” Abe said. “We will never again repeat the devastation of war. Humbly facing history, we will remain committed to this resolute pledge, no matter what the era may bring.”

The Mainichi Shimbun criticized Japan for “a national tendency of irresponsibility”. This mind-set, the newspaper said, was once described by political scholar Masao Maruyama as “completely lacking the strong self-consciousness about causing such a large-scale war”.

Emperor Akihito’s official appearance at the annual ceremony was his last, as he will step down next spring — the first abdication by a Japanese emperor for 200 years. His eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will take his place, and will deliver a speech at succeeding memorials to mourn the war dead.

In 1989, Akihito became the first Japanese emperor to ascend the throne as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” under the postwar Constitution.

As Akihito’s reign, which is called the Heisei era in Japan, draws to an end, The Japan Times said memories of the last war that Japan fought and lost may be fading fast for a large majority of people in the country.

Those born after the war now account for more than 80 percent of Japan’s population. “Most Japanese now lack firsthand experience of the war,” The Japan Times said. “And with the passage of time it will become increasingly difficult for us to keep the memories of the war alive and to pass them on to future generations.”

But many people in Japan are eager to leave those memories behind. As The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper put it, closing a certain chapter on the issue of historical perceptions is significant.

During his premiership from 2001 to 2006, Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine every Aug 15. He made a statement that the more confident Japan he helped forge during his time in office would no longer have its history dictated to it by outsiders.

The confidence Japan has in itself should be built on what the country came from, rather than justifications for its war past.

As long as Japanese politicians continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, an underlying tension between Japan and its neighbors will never disappear.

The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo. 


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