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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
June 27, 2005

Heroes or Villains at Yasukuni?

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Japan's internal indecision on war responsibility leads to cloudy foreign relations

Koizumi, right, is grilled by an opposition party leader over the Yasukuni issue in the lower house budget committee on June 2. Koizumi earlier said that Japan accepted the judgment of the Tokyo Tribunal, brushing aside criticism that his visits are tantamount to honoring Class-A war criminals.

At the heart of the seemingly interminable controversy over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead are honored, is the fact that Japanese have yet to come to terms with their part in World War II and the events that led up to it. The Japanese have failed to deal with the issue of who should be held responsible for the war and the countless deaths and untold damage it caused at home and abroad. There is even lingering argument that the war was justified.

True, Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered in 1945. It signed a peace treaty with the victorious nations in San Francisco in 1951, which included the acceptance of the verdicts at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Tribunal). It wholeheartedly embraced the "peace constitution," renouncing war and abrogating armed forces. And it has lived up to the spirit of the constitution throughout the decades of the postwar period.

Tribunal questions

It is surprising then that assertions rejecting the judgments of the Tokyo Tribunal still surface from time to time from influential politicians, scholars and the media. The thrust of their argument is the Tokyo Tribunal trials were not just, rather revenge by the victors against the vanquished. This argument is often raised to opponents of the prime minister's visits to the shrine on the grounds that convicted war criminals are included among the souls enshrined there.

Recently, this interpretation was voiced by, of all people, a leading member of the house of representatives, who is in a key cabinet post as parliamentary minister of health, labor and welfare, Masahiro Morioka. He told a recent meeting of his fellow Liberal Democratic Party legislators: "The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was a one-sided trial that fabricated crimes against peace and humanity. Two of the Class A war criminals later became prime minister and foreign minister. Pensions are paid to their bereaved families. In Japan, Class A war criminals are not criminals."

This view, voiced to counter the Chinese denunciation of Koizumi's Yasukuni visits, can be assumed to be shared privately by more than a few Japanese and the politicians they vote for. The stance is openly supported by the Yasukuni Shrine, of course, as well as some leading members of the media, the mass-circulation daily newspaper Sankei Shimbun, for example.

If so, those people who question the fundamental basis on which postwar Japan made its fresh start must be ready to show the world how Japan is to renegotiate the peace treaty it signed more than 50 years ago, upon which it was reaccepted into the world community. An Asahi Shimbun editorial hit the nail on the head when it wondered how Japan would possibly be able to.

If this argument is carried through, it amounts to an admission that Japan has cheated the international community by accepting the peace treaty, even though it apparently didn't believe in the process or judgments of the tribunal. Does the country have the powers of reason required to push this argument with the international community? It is a fantasy, and the people who make such utterances should think about what serious damage they are doing to Japan's standing in the international community.

Few Japanese dare consider it possible, nor do they think they have the guts to challenge the world by putting forth a reinterpretation of history. But when Japan comes under a barrage of angry criticism from its neighbors over its alleged failure to admit the crimes it committed during the war, the underlying emotions are, "Why are we continually held guilty and forever condemned?"

China persistently voices its outrage at the Japanese leader's visits to the shrine, viewing it as evidence that Japan condones the actions of the people responsible for the war and therefore the atrocities they committed against Chinese. Including the prime minister, many Japanese feel chagrined by what they regard as China's interference in their domestic affairs about posthumous treatment of war criminals.

Big white elephant

The issue certainly is a domestic one, but the real problem is that Japanese people have not yet settled it among themselves. Collectively, Japanese have avoided facing up to the issue and dealing with it thoroughly, leaving that to the international tribunal court, despite not fully agreeing with it.

This ambiguity has torn at the Japanese conscience over the decades since the war, and that has provided the Chinese with opportunities and excuses to "interfere" with Japanese domestic matters. Should not Americans, as the architect of postwar Japan, be disturbed, just as Chinese are, at the Japanese denial of the Tokyo Tribunals and the San Francisco peace treaty?

For all his trumpeting of reform, Prime Minister Koizumi has disappointed the electorate with his failure to deliver on his promises. He can certainly be credited with bringing to light key underlying issues which until now the public has chosen to leave unfocused. Koizumi's insistence on visiting the shrine has highlighted this country's avoidance of a thorough, exhaustive debate about its past. Japan has failed to come up with at least some consensus on who must be held responsible, and more importantly, how to present such a conclusion to the rest of the world, particularly Japan's neighbors.

Still, 60 years on, Japanese do not seem to have come to terms with their nation's past in its relations with the world community.

(Originally appeared in the June 20, 2005 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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