Despite the world-renowned politeness of the Japanese people, Japanese politicians are amazingly adept at insulting the Chinese and Korean governments. This is typically accomplished by arguing over remote uninhabited islands or by making visits to Japan’s infamous Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of WWII era Class “A” war criminals have been enshrined.
With that in mind, I recently made a long overdue visit to Yasukuni on, of all infamous days, the seventh of December. My goal, hopefully as an open minded, non-historian, casual non Japanese observer, was to determine whether this place is simply Japan’s Arlington Cemetery or whether the neighbors have good cause to be so highly insulted whenever a Japanese politician visits the shrine.
The Yasukuni Shrine is in Tokyo, just across the street from the Imperial Gardens, in the heart of the city. Yasukuni is privately owned, not a government run entity, and that may explain why I noticed no signs on Imperial or public property pointing the way. My understanding is that the Imperial family has refused to visit ever since the war criminals were enshrined in the 1970’s.
When I arrived, the wide pathway leading to the shrine was crowded with people having a flea market! It surprised me to see people with such excitement and having fun making a few extra yen seemingly oblivious to the worshipful reverence for the war dead I was expecting this place would hold.
The shrine itself is quite large, about the size of a high school gymnasium. It really seemed inoffensive and I found no sign of pro-war propaganda. There is no cemetery where war criminal bodies or ashes could be buried. They didn’t have any memorials to buck tooth, round eyeglass wearing Japanese war criminals, such as those portrayed in this American wartime propaganda penned by Dr. Seuss.
At first, I concluded that Yasukuni is just a nice place to remember those who suffered and died in war and that Korean and Chinese politicians were simply feigning offense as a political tool. Then I noticed the history museum just a few steps away, on the shrine’s property. It costs the equivalent of $8 dollars to go in, and it’s a real eye opener from start to finish.
The good news for people who appreciate historical revision will be the sections of the museum that highlight the crimes of imperial western powers who abused Japan and China in the 19th century. A treaty of amity between Japan and the United States government (USG) is a prime example of a one sided treaty foisted upon a weaker country. Under this treaty, the USG and its agents were granted extraterritoriality, or immunity from Japanese law.
Furthermore, the museum has an excellent presentation on the topic of USG mendacity in its pre-WWII “negotiations” with Japan. Roosevelt and his fellow warmongers negotiated in bad faith, constantly changing their demands and refusing to accept “Yes” as an answer when negotiating with the pro-American Japanese Prime Minister, Fumimaro Konoe. As a result, Konoe was replaced by a Japanese right-wing warmonger by the name of Hideki Tojo and we wound up in a war, which is what Roosevelt wanted from the get go.
Sadly, the vast majority of exhibits in the museum are filled with war justifying propaganda. The main themes are as follows:
- The subjugation and blackmailing of Korea by imperial era China justified Japan’s military occupation of Korea.
- The abuse and humiliation of imperial era China by racist imperial western powers justified Japan’s military occupation of Manchuria.
- Japanese soldiers in the pre-WWII era performed in an exemplary and disciplined manner.
The idea that defending a third country against imperial occupation and abuse justified Japan’s own acts of imperialism, military occupation and abuse is absurd. Further, I found it offensive that the death and suffering of the civilians at the hands of Japan’s military is ignored. It’s as if the curators of the Yasukuni museum don’t acknowledge the worth of those people and that their deaths are not even worth mentioning and are somehow justified.
There is neither contrition nor apology of any sort.
A prime example of this would be the museum’s exhibit on the Rape of Nanking, a war time episode during which up to 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed by Japan’s military, yet somehow these deaths are not even mentioned. Instead, a copy of a document hand written by a Japanese officer in which he commands his troops to not attack civilians is shown, as if this piece of paper serves as evidence that nothing wrong happened. Pot shots taken by locals against Japan’s military are used as an excuse to justify the assault.
The museum at Yasukuni left this visitor with the impression that Japan is proud of what was done in the pre-WWII era. It is easy to see why the materials in this important and high profile museum insult the Chinese government and governments of Korea. However, are insulting materials in a museum such a big deal? How does an obnoxious photo op by a Japanese politician at the shrine change anyone’s life? It’s just a privately-owned museum exhibition we are talking about and it’s not as if the average Japanese, Korean, or Chinese person would really care about the museum or the political visits if they were not being egged on.
Should Japanese people become outraged because of the Smithsonian Institute’s exhibit ignoring the horrors of the atomic bomb used on civilian populations? What would you think if the Japanese government announced it was outraged every time a US President read a Dr. Seuss book to a group of kindergarteners? As far as I know, Seuss never apologized for drawing his racist cartoons. Rather than an outraged response, it’s clearly in the best interest of the people if reactions to these historical insults are kept in proportion, not used an excuse to cut off trade or engage in militarism.
Just recently, Japan’s neocon Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visited Yasukuni shrine, the first visit by a sitting Japanese Prime Minister in 7 years. This provocative and very public visit, rightly seen by the Korean and Chinese governments as an intentional slap in the face, will set back already strained relationships and may be used as an excuse for a revival of militarism. Given the fact that the museum’s insulting materials and the brief visit by Abe could so easily be hidden or played down, you have to suspect that having poor relations with neighboring countries is something desired by not only Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but also the Chinese and Korean political leaders.
Yasukuni caters to aging right-wingers who seemingly approve of Japan’s pre WWII militarism. Any visit by a political leader is reasonably seen as an endorsement of militarism and a rejection of Japan’s wonderful post WWII pacifism.
Even if they wanted to, the shrine owners cannot remove war criminal bodies or ashes because they were never there in the first place. They cannot “un-say” the prayers that effectively enshrined the war criminals. Further, they are not likely to add exhibits highlighting the evidence of war crimes or take other steps to make itself acceptable to the victims of Japanese militarism. Yasukuni is doomed to be a place that is offensive to victim countries of the WWII era.
In the interest of telling the truth, being good friends and neighbors, and maintaining her standing as a peaceful country that profits from trade, Japanese politicians should not visit there. There are other places where Japanese politicians can go to honor the war dead without insulting the neighbors. More importantly, people of all countries involved need to make sure that politicians don’t receive consent to use the provocative visits to the shrine or the obnoxious exhibits in the shrine museum as an excuse for militarism.
Thanks to Mike “in Tokyo” Rogers for his sage advice .