China-Japan Relations under the Koizumi Administration Series: - The Case for Koizumi's Yasukuni Shrine 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.
One month before Beijing and Tokyo prepare to commemorate the highly sensitive 60th anniversary of Japan's WWII surrender on August 15, relations between the two neighbors are dangerously strained over a host of historical, territorial and economic disputes. The current focal point of bilateral tension is the annual pilgrimage of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which serves as a memorial for Japan's war dead, but also controversially honors 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime leader General Hedeki Tojo.
Despite being at the very centre of China-Japan friction, Koizumi and his supporters' justification for his Yasukuni forays remains largely a mystery to most non-Japanese. This is because the arguments in favor of the shrine excursions are generally not presented in the English language media in a coherent and detailed manner. However, analyzing these explanations offers significant insights into key issues at the heart of current China-Japan tensions, something which will become increasingly important if bilateral dialogue deteriorates further.
The following arguments represent the unadulterated pro-Yasukuni case as it is presented in the Japanese language press and by supporters the prime minister's shrine pilgrimages.
The pro-Yasukuni camp says Japan is truly remorseful about the pain and suffering it inflicted on China and other Asia countries during WWII. Japanese prime ministers and officials have on many occasions made extensive public apologies for the country's wartime occupation of its neighbours. Most recently, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking at the Asian-Africa summit in Indonesia in April, expressed his "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" for Japan's colonial rule and wartime aggression, giving one of the fullest apologies ever by a Japanese premier.
The Yasukuni advocates say it's absolute nonsense to claim that Japan hasn't apologized to the people of Asia and is not thoroughly repentant about its past acts of aggression.
Instead shrine defenders say there is a lot of misinformation and ignorance about the Shinto establishment. Foremost, they point out that Yasukuni is primarily dedicated to the country's war dead, claiming it is the Japanese equivalent of America's Arlington Cemetery or the UK's Cenotaph, and as such is a natural and proper place for Japanese political leaders to pay their respects in a traditional manner to those who died in the service of their country.
The shrine adheres to the standard Shinto practice of forgiving the sins of all those who have died and honours the memory of everyone who fell in the service of Japan regardless of what they actually did when they were alive.
Like any other religion, the Shinto faith cannot reasonably be expected to change the fundamental tenets of its teaching, just because another country finds them inappropriate. To suggest that it should is highly insensitive and demonstrates a complete lack of respect for deeply held Japanese religious beliefs.
On each occasion Prime Minister Koizumi has visited the Yasukuni Shrine, he has made it absolutely clear that his intention is to pray for peace and show respect for the war dead, just like any other elected prime minister or president in a democratic country.
Nationalists argue that just because Japan lost the war does not mean that its people and leaders should forfeit the right to pay their respects in a traditional manner to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Immediately after his visit to Yasukuni in January 2003, Prime Minister Koizumi stated his motives, "I prayed for peace and prosperity at the Yasukuni Shrine." He added, "Japan's peace and prosperity are not only the result of the efforts of people today; they are also built on the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the war even though they did not want to die."
He has also diplomatically explained why such visits are purely a domestic matter, saying, "I don't think the people of any country would criticize the people of another for paying respect to their own history, traditions and customs."
After his January 2004 visit, an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun [newspaper] elaborated on this theme: "The issue of when and in what manner a prime minister of a nation should pray for the war dead is, primarily, a domestic issue to be decided on the basis of the country's traditions and customs. Other countries are in no position to say anything about it."
The nationalists ask, why does China object so strongly to a democratically elected Japanese leader solemnly praying for peace and simply honoring the war dead of his country?
The pro-Yasukuni forces say a major part of the answer lies in the fact that China is not a democracy and is run by an unelected and "autocratic Communist Party." Its "secretive leaders" are not accountable to its people and freedom of speech is severely restricted.
At the moment, there are many serious social issues in China that people are not allowed to openly discuss. Beijing has found that deliberately whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment is an easy way to divert attention from these problems and allows its suppressed citizens to vent pent-up anger which might otherwise be directed at the Communist Party. Generating nationalist sentiment also helps the Communist Party shore up its grip on power during a period of difficult social transition.
In the past, China did not complain when Japanese Prime ministers Masayoshi Ohira and Zenko Suzuki visited the shrine and Yasukuni advocates say it is just doing so now in an attempt to intimidate Japan. Another element of this strategy is Beijing's rapidly expanding military which is also attempting to menace Japan with incursions into Japanese territorial waters.
Tokyo cannot afford to bow to these threats, because it would be seen as a sign of weakness and Beijing would only make further unreasonable demands and increase incursions into Japanese territory.
History clearly demonstrates that it is not in the interests of a democratic country to bow to political, military or economic pressure exerted by undemocratic regimes.
Nationalist lawmakers say paying homage at Yasukuni is not the real the issue at the heart of Sino-Japanese tensions. China is merely utilizing it as a tactic to coerce Japan into submission as part of its broader strategy for expanding its regional power.
Yasukuni supporters point out that Koizumi recently remarked, "I do not think Yasukuni shrine is the core issue of Japan-China and Japan-South Korea ties. The core issue is that we should enhance our ties with future-oriented views."
The Yasukuni camp believe that like the leader of any other democratic country, Prime Minister Koizumi should continue to pay his respects in a traditional manner to the war dead at the national monument dedicated to them. Japan should not make concessions regarding the key principles of non-interference in domestic affairs and the separation of political and economic issues.
The nationalists claim that if Tokyo remains firm on Yasukuni then Beijing will eventually realize that its bullying tactics are unproductive. When it understands this, the two countries can create the basis for a new and more meaningful bilateral relationship.
The counterarguments to the anti-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.