Spring is here, a time when Japan’s nationalist politicians traditionally pay their respects to Japan’s war dead by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. These visits always provoke a furor in the region, and this year things are no different. Among the shrine’s memorialized are more than a thousand war criminals who were executed after Japan’s defeat in World War II. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit the shrine himself this year, at least four of his cabinet ministers were spotted there, and Mr. Abe himself sent a branch of a cypress tree as a ritual offering. In response, the South Korean Foreign Minister canceled his trip to Japan.
Unlike Germany, Japan has never made a serious effort to come to terms with the unspeakable crimes its armed forces and civilians carried out during World War II. Japan’s empire-building across Asia was accompanied by all manner of atrocity—including gruesome Mengele-style biological “experiments”. Japan’s neighbors have not forgotten.
To a certain degree, this is good for US power, as residual distrust of Japan, combined with fear of a rising China, makes many Asians continue to value the stabilizing presence of the US in the region. Because Japan and China have never been able to have the kind of meeting of the minds and deep reconciliation that Germany and France had after World War II, Asia remains a turbulent and dangerous place.
There seems to be a fear among right-wingers in Japan that coming to terms with the horrible evils committed in the past would undermine Japan’s legitimacy and national identity. Such fears are understandable to some degree, but are overstated. No country on earth has a pure heritage; there are ugly chapters in everyone’s history books. Coming to terms with these chapters is one of the ways that a country cements its membership in the club of the civilized. The thing Japanese conservatives and nationalists fear most is actually the thing they most need. But for now at least they remain paralyzed in the face of a destructive legacy they can neither bury nor accept.
[Yasukuni shrine photo courtesy of Wikimedia]