• Sat
  • Nov 1, 2014
  • Updated: 8:51am

Honouring aggression at Yasukuni

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 October, 2005, 12:00am

In open defiance against growing domestic and international criticism, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to the Yasukuni Shrine on Monday, his fifth such visit since coming to power in 2001. The following day, a large number of other politicians paid tribute at the shrine.


Two weeks ago, a Japanese high court ruled that Mr Koizumi's pilgrimage to Yasukuni, where convicted war criminals are honoured among the war dead, violated the constitutional separation of church and state. A number of Asian countries - former victims of Japanese militarism - have always opposed such visits. They have repeatedly asked Mr Koizumi not to go to the shrine this year, the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war.


Mr Koizumi's latest action immediately pushed Japan's relations with its neighbours to a new low. China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan all lodged strong protests. Scheduled diplomatic meetings between Tokyo and other Asian capitals were cancelled or postponed.


But the long-term damage to the region by the latest shrine visit will become even more severe. Unlike in Europe, where Germany's thorough reflection on history has led to continental reconciliation, East Asia has suffered from Japan's lack of remorse for its aggressive war. The annual visit to Yasukuni by Mr Koizumi and a large number of Japanese parliamentarians simply makes a mockery of any 'sincere apologies' offered in the past.


First, Mr Koizumi and company justify the shrine visit as following Japanese culture and tradition. But Yasukuni was created by the Japanese government, in the late 19th century, to honour overseas expansion and imperialist war efforts. It was the designated institution for state Shinto indoctrination and the propaganda and mobilisation centre of Japanese militarism.


Yasukuni represents a culture of blind obedience to a totalitarian state, and a tradition of colonialism and imperialism through war and aggression.


Second, Mr Koizumi rebutted criticism by insisting that he goes to Yasukuni only to show respect to those who sacrificed themselves for the country's current prosperity, and to pray for peace. Yet, if one takes a tour of the war museum attached to the shrine, as I did a few months ago, it is clear that the shrine demands all who pray there should live the way those enshrined there lived.


At the shrine you find a history that says Japan did no wrong, and waged no aggressive wars, in the past. It claims all the sacrifices made by Japanese were not for a militaristic state, but for Japan's own defence and for liberating Asians from white imperialism.


Third, the prime minister has accused Beijing and Seoul of interfering in Japan's domestic affairs. Knowing full well the potential for backlash from neighbouring countries, Mr Koizumi promised right-wing groups that he would make annual visits to the shrine in exchange for their support in his leadership bid four years ago.


He then manipulated the Japanese public's resentment of foreign criticism by presenting himself as standing tall. As a result, he managed to remain popular and even won a majority in the recent lower-house election.


Unfortunately, Mr Koizumi has faced only a very limited domestic challenge to his shrine pilgrimages. That is another reflection of his country's failure as a democracy to collectively face its war responsibilities.


The Japanese voters who put Mr Koizumi in office should pursue a much brighter option, constructing a path to reconciliation in East Asia while firmly blocking the way to Yasukuni.


Wenran Jiang is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada


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