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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #119: July 20, 2005

China-Japan Relations under the Koizumi Administration Series: - The Moral and Economic Case against Yasukuni Pilgrimages

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

A list of articles on a similar theme by the same author can be found here.

According to Beijing, China-Japan relations are at their lowest level since diplomatic relations were established three decades ago and this situation is primarily the result of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a controversial Shinto war shrine. The Yasukuni Shrine functions as a memorial for the nation's war dead, but also contentiously honors 14 Class-A war criminals, among them Japan's notorious wartime leader General Hedeki Tojo.

The shrine issue has sparked fierce debate within Japan about the rights and wrongs of a prime minister paying homage at an establishment so closely associated with the country's brutal wartime regime.

The arguments of those who oppose such visits can be divided into two distinct categories: moral and economic. Understanding both aspects is becoming increasingly important as tensions between Beijing and Tokyo continue to rise.

The moral anti-Yasukuni case acknowledges that under normal circumstances how a country honours its war dead is usually a purely domestic matter, in which other countries have no right to interfere. However, they point out that in this particular case it is not so straightforward for a number of important historical reasons.

Firstly, during the 1930s and 1940s the shrine served as the spiritual pillar for Japanese nationalism and is inextricably linked with the wartime military regime which was responsible for the suffering of millions of people in neighboring Asian countries.

Secondly, in 1978 the Shinto priests at the establishment secretly enshrined the names of 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime leader Hedeki Tojo, into the shrine. This clandestine ceremony was only made public in 1979 and it is from this point onwards that Yasukuni really begins to attract domestic and international controversy.

This act meant it was no longer possible for the Emperor to personally go there, although imperial envoys are still regularly sent. While the last imperial visit occurred on 21 November 1975, political leaders have been far less cautious.

Prime ministers Masayoshi Ohira and Zenko Suzuki both visited the shrine in the early eighties after the announcement of the secret enshrinement ceremony, but the significance of their low-profile pilgrimages was not fully understood by the international community in the days before the 24-hour global media age. Since the world could not physically see them paying homage and the controversy of the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals was still relatively unknown, the excursions were largely ignored. Furthermore, Prime Minister Suzuki's 1982 visit appears to have been in a purely private capacity.

It was not until 15 August 1985 that an official visit by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone caused neighboring Asian countries to strongly protest. Nakasone did not visited the shrine again as Prime Minister out of consideration for Japan-China relations, and neither did any other prime minister in an official capacity until Koizumi resurrected the practice on 13 August 2001. Since then he has visited the shrine each year, causing a storm of international protest on each occasion.

While nationalists have questioned the motives of an undemocratic Chinese regime in raising the Yasukuni issue, the same argument cannot be applied to South Korea which is a vibrant democracy. Yet, criticisms by Seoul and Beijing about Yasukuni are almost identical.

For example, after the January 2003 pilgrimage, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shin Bong-kil, said, "Our government expresses deep regret that Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi paid homage at the Yasukuni Shrine which houses memorials to war criminals, who undermined world peace and inflicted intolerable damage and pain on our people."

Compare this to a statement made after the January 2004 visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. Li said, "We will never tolerate an incumbent Japanese leader going to a shrine enshrining Class-A war criminals. There is no leader in Germany or Italy who pays homage to the soul of Hitler or Mussolini."

Indeed, these kinds of Hitler/Mussolini comparisons, which are the most damaging for Japan's international reputation, can even be found in Koizumi's own junior coalition partner. For example, on 20 May this year, New Komeito lawmaker Junichi Fukumoto told Koizumi in parliament, "I want you to think about how Jewish people would feel if the German chancellor visited the grave of Adolf Hitler."

To many ordinary Chinese and Koreans, the Yasukuni visits really appear to be the same as a German leader visiting a Hitler memorial and as such these views cannot simply be ignored.

It is true that Shinto traditions state that a person's sins are forgiven once they are dead, and General Tojo has the same right to enshrinement as any other deceased soul.

However, a prime minister needs to remember that he or she is the international political representative of their nation, not its spiritual sage or philosopher.

In a globalized world it has to be acknowledged that when it comes to such sensitive issues, the feelings of other countries have to be taken into proper consideration by politicians, regardless of domestic religious practices.

Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone summed up this view recently when he said, "I understand the prime minister visits the shrine out of his personal beliefs...However, a prime minister should also think how his conduct will affect the national interest...a separate enshrinement of Class-A war criminals will take time, I think it would be an admirable political decision to stop visiting the shrine."

Chinese leaders have continually stressed that they understand the need for Japanese leaders to honor the war dead, but cannot accept the fact that it is done at an establishment which also honors the wartime leaders who were directly responsible for inflicting immense suffering on its people.

The other half of the Yasukuni counterargument is purely an economic one.

Quite simply, the tensions generated by the pilgrimages are threatening booming economic ties which are essential to both countries. Bilateral friction is already having an impact on commerce, threatening billions of yen in investments by Japanese companies.

In April large anti-Japanese demonstrations sweep across China, last August there were disturbances at the Asia Cup final and in 2003 an anti-Japanese riot broke out in Xi'an. Northwest China. The increasing possibility that more of these kinds of disturbances will occur is making Japanese business people, and their families, feel uncomfortable about working in China, and the uncertainty is making Japanese companies hesitant to launch new expansion plans. In such a competitive market as China, Japanese business cannot afford such distractions and poor political ties are a potential threat to business.

Bilateral tensions are also negatively affecting Chinese citizens living in Japan and this is also hurting trading and cultural links.

In recent years, many ordinary Japanese have invested a lot of effort into building up good connections with both China and Korea. Insensitive actions by the prime minister are harming these hard-forged bonds and in extreme cases even putting Japanese citizens at risk as the spate of recent anti-Japanese demonstrates illustrated.

Other contentious issues like the revisionist Japanese history textbooks, the status of Taiwan and various territorial disputes are also becoming harder to resolve in a continually strained atmosphere. This situation is also feeding nationalist passions which are difficult to control.

There is a risk that if Sino-Japanese ties remain tense, other issues like Taiwan or the Senkaku islands territorial dispute could eventually lead to more serious forms of confrontation.

Even if we accept the nationalist argument that China is merely exploiting the Yasukuni issue to pressure Japan, it has to be asked why Koizumi is giving Beijing such a valuable diplomatic card to play? The Yasukuni issue is damaging Japan's international image as it makes the country look insensitive to the feelings of other nations and unremorseful about its past.

Koizumi is also harming Japanese economic interests in China. China-Japan relations need to look to the future, not dwell on the past. For both moral and economic reasons, the Yasukuni pilgrimages should stop.

The counterarguments to the pro-Yasukuni case can be found here.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. Some sections of this article first appeared in a different form in Asia Times Online, http://www.atimes.com, and those sections are republished with permission.

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