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Commentary (October 25, 2005)

Look for Change Next Year

Gregory Clark  (Vice President, Akita International University)

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's determination to visit Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine needs to be seen in the perspective. The visit was not necessarily, as Beijing and Seoul seem to believe, a final proof of prime-ministerial evil. As we saw in the recent post office privatization fuss, Koizumi likes to see himself as a man of determined principle, even when the principle is rather dubious. Having pledged at the outset of his administration to visit Yasukuni each year, it was unlikely he would change his mind, even if it was clear he would damage relations with China, South Korea and his Komeito coalition partners in the process.

His 2002 and 2004 visits to North Korea to improve relations with Pyongyang prove he does not belong entirely to the hardline right of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, even if those efforts were derailed by that right. In foreign affairs he could well be under the moderating influence of his faction mentor and former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, whose efforts to open bridges to Pyongyang and Moscow were never properly appreciated. And don't forget that first choice as foreign minister was the dovish, pro-China Makiko Tanaka.

Besides, for many Japanese, and not just the rabid right, Yasukuni is not quite the symbol of militaristic evil it is for most outsiders. True, it glorifies past wars. But many Japanese genuinely feel that Japan in the past had little choice but to wage many of those wars. A Western cabal had already colonized much of Asia, often brutally. It wanted to keep Japan out of the action. When Japan did try to join the action, Tokyo never resorted to anything quite as grubby as Britain's Opium War against China -- a war that made a much stronger impression on Japan than many realize.

Even Japan's 1937 attack into China proper was more accident than design. Tokyo at the time was determined to attack into Siberia and was diverted when an accidental military clash near Peking escalated into full-scale hostilities -- the so-called Marco Polo Bridge incident.

Where the Japanese go wrong is in failing to realize that while the motives for their wars may not have been entirely blameful, the same cannot be said for the behavior of their soldiers. Some Japanese argue that Western soldiers have behaved with equal barbarity -- the Americans in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, the Russians in Chechnya and so on. Even so there was little to compare with the calculated barbarity of the Japanese. Next time a rightwing nationalist harangues you about exaggerated Chinese estimates for the alleged Nanjing massacre, ask them about Unit 731 using live Chinese prisoners for ghastly germ warfare experiments. You will be impressed by the silence.

More than anything else, it is the way official Japan has consistently skirted these and other deliberate atrocity issues -- gas and germ warfare against China, the mistreatment of war prisoners and of Chinese slave laborers in Japan, the massacres of Chinese in Singapore and Malaya -- that fuels the contempt and hatred of Japan felt by many Asians and quite a few Westerners. Arguments that Japan as a shame society cannot admit past national mistakes make little impression on us foreigners brought up in guilt societies.

But even here it is hard to lay down absolutes. The world is horrified by the atrocities in Darfur. But similar U.S. scorched-earth policies in Vietnam stirred few feelings of guilt in the West, just as similar Moscow policies in Afghanistan and Chechnya failed to upset most Russians. We are all fairly impervious where our own national atrocities are concerned, partly for shame reasons.

The Japanese right likes to insist that since Beijing's anti-Yasukuni angst is fairly recent it must be politically inspired. (They also used to say the same thing about recent anti-Japan demonstrations in China, until it became clear that the Beijing authorities were opposed and had even arrested some of the leaders.)

Beijing has its reasons for its recent angst, since it is only recently that Tokyo's more strongly anti-China policies -- the Senkaku Islands question, quasi support for Taiwan independence, promises to cooperate with the U.S. militarily over Taiwan, for example -- have become obvious. Beijing till recently has tried to put all the war blame on the 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted of A-class war crimes and whose souls are said to be enshrined at Yasukuni. (It tried to argue that the peace-loving Japanese people were led astray by these leaders.) Koizumi's homage to the souls of those 14 leaders in effect pulls the rug out from under Beijing's feet, and rather rudely.

On the face of things, Japan now seems locked into permanent distrust and hostility with its two main neighbors. But things could change if Koizumi sticks to his promise to stand down toward the end of next year -- something quite likely given his propensity for fulfilling pledges, good or bad.

In the past the China factor was often crucial to LDP leadership elections; even the incorrigibly anti-Beijing, pro-Taiwan Eisaku Sato, had to pretend to be pro-Beijing in his 1970 bid for leadership. If the mild and self-effacing former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda is now being suggested as a successor to Koizumi, that is at least partly because he genuinely does want to put more emphasis on Asia in Japan's diplomacy.

(This article appeared in the October 24, 2005 issue of The Japan Times)

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