Post-war Japan should look back with gratitude and slam the door on wrongs embodied in Yasukuni

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says Shinzo Abe and other leading politicians must realise that visits to the shrine honouring Japan’s war dead revive old wounds and incite fear of a revival of militarism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 6:35pm

This month, post-second-world-war Japan and I celebrate our 71st anniversary. For much of these 71 years, our existences have been quite intertwined.

I first went to Tokyo in 1950. I have childhood recollections of the intense poverty, the begging by wounded former soldiers, the “pom-pom” girls and the Occupation forces. I left Tokyo in 1959, but returned frequently in the ensuing decades.

In the 1960s, I witnessed the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the economic boom that was termed a “miracle”, but that also included a cultural boom, notably in cinema and literature. Doing my doctorate on 19th century Japanese economic history, I had the privilege of having the great scholar and humanist Masao Maruyama as mentor. He had a great influence on me. He had been a rare courageous opponent to Japanese militarism, fascism and imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s; he occasionally recounted stories of being arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Kempeitai (Japan’s equivalent of the Gestapo). He died 20 years ago, also this month.

The country that most benefited from the Allied victory was Japan

Then, in the 1970s, when I was twice (1974 and 1977) visiting professor at Tôhoku University in Sendai, I was able to witness Japan valiantly overcoming the “Nixon shocks”. This was when then US president Richard Nixon unilaterally imposed tariff hikes on Japanese textile imports, and, more critically, took the dollar off the gold standard, sparking a dramatic rise in the value of the yen; Japan’s high growth in the 1960s had been driven by exports that benefited from a cheap yen. The Nixon shocks occurred virtually simultaneously with the oil shocks, when Opec (widely unknown and ignored until then) dramatically increased the price of oil.

I was back commuting to Tokyo throughout the 1980s when Japan’s fortunes soared. Japan was appearing to become “number one”, as it was predicted it would surpass the US in gross domestic product within a decade or two. Then US ambassador to Tokyo Mike Mansfield referred to the US-Japan relationship as the “most important bilateral relationship, bar none”. The Japanese prime minister and US president met frequently to discuss the soaring US trade imbalance and the resulting friction.

Though the Japanese initially panicked when the yen was massively revalued following the 1985 Plaza Accord, signed at the New York City hotel, they soon discovered that their global purchasing power had also increased massively. This allowed Japanese corporates and private investors to go on global spending sprees. When Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, his state funeral was the biggest in history in terms of heads of government and state in attendance. Of all the “famous” (or infamous) names associated with the second world war – Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Eisenhower, Churchill, de Gaulle, Tito, Chiang Kai-shek, etc, – Hirohito outlived them all. Who could possibly have believed that would be the case in August 1945?

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Little was it realised at the time, but shortly after Hirohito’s death, Japan reached its zenith. The 1990s ushered in the “lost decades”, in which Japan has been wallowing economically, politically and socially since. Still, Japan has achieved a degree of peace and prosperity for which it should look back over the decades with gratitude.

Gratitude is certainly the sentiment I feel when looking back. How immensely lucky I was to be born in 1945 and not 40 years earlier, in 1905, when my father was born. His generation witnessed two world wars, several bloody revolutions, the rise of extremist ideologies, civil wars, the great depression, the Nazi occupation of France, the Holocaust and the ravages caused by Japanese invaders across East Asia. In 1937, he met and married my mother, who was a refugee from the Spanish civil war.

What an incomparably great thing it was for both of us, post-war Japan and I, that the Axis powers – militarist Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy – lost and the Allies won. With the apparent exception of some leading Japanese politicians, that feeling of gratitude is widespread across the planet. This includes Japan’s erstwhile allies, Germany and Italy.

In fact, the country that most benefited from the Allied victory was Japan. The American Occupation liberated the Japanese people from the oppressive, obscurantist, militarist, totalitarian regime that had prevailed prior to and following the outbreak of war. Those years were characterised by the words of the title of a seminal 1969 publication by the late Japanese scholar and diplomatist Tatsuo Arima, The Failure of Freedom.

With its radical rural reform programme, the American Occupation freed tens of millions of peasants who had been living in feudal conditions of indenture to landlords. Imprisoned unionists were freed. Academic freedom was granted. With the inclusion of a clause specifying the rights and indeed equality of the sexes, tens of millions of women were freed – at least constitutionally – from male chauvinistic oppression. Had these reforms not been implemented, it would have been impossible for Tomomi Inada to become a Japanese politician, let alone minister of defence. The fact that she has been a regular and quite visible visitor to the Shintoist Yasukuni Shrine that enshrines over 100 Japanese war criminals, including 14 class-A criminals, appears rather weird, indeed perverse.

[Without reforms] it would have been impossible for Tomomi Inada to become a Japanese politician, let alone minister of defence

The Allied victory did not lead to utopian conditions, whether in Japan or indeed the rest of the planet. By no means was the American superpower an unqualified benign hegemon – as testified by the Vietnam and Iraq wars, among many other reprehensible acts.

There is much to criticise in American occupation policies of Japan. It is probable that the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal represented what the dissenting Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal termed “victor’s justice”. It is also questionable and inequitable that Hirohito escaped prosecution. The about-turn of American Occupation policy after 1949 – with the liberation in China – also resulted in the freeing from jail of a good number of designated war criminals, including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi (who became prime minister himself in 1957 and again in 1960). The “occupation” of Japan, its faults notwithstanding, stands out in positively peaceful contrast with most (possibly all) occupations, including Japanese occupations, like that of Manchuria.

Cabinet minister Takaichi and 90 other Japanese lawmakers visit Yasukuni war shrine

On balance, therefore, considering developments that have occurred over the decades since August 1945, Japanese should look back with great gratitude.

It is in that context that the visits by leading Japanese politicians to Yasukuni, the unrepentant sanctuary of wartime Japan, are so objectionable. By displaying ingratitude and remorselessness for the past, Japanese political attitudes augur badly for the future. In Europe, current travails notwithstanding, the commemoration of leading German populations of the Nazi past would simply not occur – not just because of international opinion, but emphatically because of German national opinion (with the exception of extremist neo-Nazi fringe groups).

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Abe, his defence minister Inada, and indeed the recently elected governor of Tokyo, hawkish Yuriko Koike, among many other leading Japanese conservative politicians, have expressed their strong desire to revise the post-war constitution, in particular the famous Article 9, according to which Japan forever renounces the sovereign right to go to war. The apprehension among many – including this writer – is not so much that the military forces will be revived, but that the obscurantist chauvinist militarist ideology will be revived as per the spirits of those who are enshrined in Yasukuni.

In looking back with gratitude and looking forward in peace and solidarity, for the 72nd anniversary next year, Tokyo should plan a great gathering of all former second world war combatants, including Japan’s allies and victims, to celebrate the peace of 1945. This would be a most effective means of shutting the door symbolically on the Yasukuni sanctuary and all the wrong things it stands for.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong