Spirited Away

Why Shinzo Abe's visit to a Tokyo shrine could make his lousy relations with Beijing much worse.

Isaac Stone Fish
Isaac Stone Fish

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Thursday visit to a controversial Tokyo shrine has pissed off friends and foes alike. The government of South Korea, which was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, was furious; a spokesman said, "We cannot withhold regret and anger over the visit" to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead — and a few of its internationally-designated war criminals. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo even released a statement saying "Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors." But no capital was more incensed than Beijing. 2013 was already a bad year for Sino-Japanese relations, with disputes over a mutually-claimed island chain and both side’s militarization. Abe’s shrine trip could make things much worse.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Abe had pushed Japan in an "extremely dangerous" direction. Also in its statement, China’s Foreign Ministry employed an expression it often uses to chide Japan: "stay focused on the future and grounded in history." The word used, jian, means mirror, and the expression conveys an unrealistically optimistic hope, as if the reflections of the past are clearly visible in the present.

The Chinese protest Yasukuni visits and the Japanese proceed to visit anyway because both sides believe their actions are righting history. To oversimplify an incredibly complicated subject, many Chinese view Japan as stubbornly unapologetic for invading their country during World War II. Japan, or so the thinking goes, has not yet been made to pay for its crimes. (And they think the return of the Diaoyus, the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, which Japan administers and calls the Senkakus, would be a step in the right direction.)

For their part, the Japanese feel China has overreacted to their misdeeds and now demands appeasement. It’s an important debate, with worrying parallels to Germany’s angst over its treatment after World War I. And the shrine itself, an exquisitely manicured garden in a wealthy part of Tokyo whose name ironically means "pacifying the nation," has become an unlikely flashpoint in this struggle.

Yasukuni contains three different elements, two of which the Chinese, South Koreans, and some Japanese find extremely objectionable. Its uncontroversial aspect is its history as a shrine of Shinto, one of Japan’s major religions. According to its website, Yasukuni was established in 1869 "to commemorate and honor the achievement of those who dedicated their precious lives for their country." Like every country, Japan honors its war dead. More than "2,466,000 divinities," are enshrined there, the souls of men who perished in all Japanese wars since 1853.

Of these men, it’s 14 who incited the controversy: Japan’s "Class A" war criminals, including Tojo Hideki, Japan’s prime minister during World War II. Class A is the most serious designation, and the 14 enshrined in Yasukuni represent fully half of the total convicted after World War II. Many Japanese objected to the 1978 decision to include these men: Emperor Hirohito, who had formerly visited the shrine, stopped going after the Class A war criminals were included; his successor has never visited.

The first prime minister to visit after the Class A criminals were enshrined was Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985. "After he saw the regional reaction — which was quite negative, Nakasone said it’s very important for me to have good relations with China and South Korea, so I won’t go again," said Jennifer Lind, an associate professor at Dartmouth College focusing on East Asian security issues. The issue died down again until Junichiro Koizumi, a popular Japanese prime minister who served from 2001 to 2006, made it an annual habit, sending relations with China into a tailspin. In a meeting with Koizumi in November 2004, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly urged him to "correctly handle the problem of the Yasukuni Shrine" by "staying grounded in history, which is correctly dealing with history, the cornerstone of Sino-Japanese relations for generation after generation" — a patronizing remark from a country with notoriously inaccurate views of its own history.

The Chinese didn’t like Koizumi’s visits, but they appeared to understand his motivations, said Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They had a regularity to them that provided a ballast to the relationship. Abe, who succeeded Koizumi, stopped visiting the shrine, probably as an attempt, mostly successful, to improve relations. However, Abe continued to argue that Japan was wronged by the United States after World War II. In 2006, during his first stint as prime minister, Abe said the 28 Class A war criminals are "not war criminals under the laws of Japan." He allegedly views the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the U.S. body which convened the trial, as "victors’ justice." (Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese prime minister from 1957 to 1960, was himself accused, but never indicted, of Class A war crimes for his role as minister of Commerce and Industry in the 1940s.) It’s a view that probably gets less sympathy than it should. "If the United States had lost World War II, and Harry Truman, Gen. George Patton and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower [leaders of the U.S. war effort] had been declared war criminals, the United States would have said, ‘That’s absurd!’" says Lind. "When you try on that argument for size, it sounds less ridiculous."

The other controversial aspect of the shrine is its museum, the only institution I saw in Tokyo that rivaled Beijing for its propagandizing and revisionist retelling of World War II. A description in the museum makes the inaccurate claim that during World War II’s bloody Wuhan campaign, the Japanese "took perfect care to secure the safety of residents and historical and cultural monuments." Most problematic is the description of the Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese troops  brutally massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese in December 1937. Without mentioning the atrocities, the description claims the commanding general kept "strict discipline," and that the defeated Chinese "were completely destroyed." When I visited in early September, on a trip to Tokyo sponsored by the nonprofit Sasakawa Peace Foundation, the museum was playing a movie entitled "We Will Not Forget," about "our current history and war history, based on historic fact." Lind called the museum "truly disturbing."

Koizumi would time his visits to the shrine to coincide with historically significant days. In April 2013, during a spring festival associated with the shrine, Abe declined to visit but sent cabinet members, as well as the ceremonial offering of a branch from a cypress tree. The Chine
se and South Koreans were still furious. "In his mind, Abe thinks he did everything he could to improve relations with his neighbors over his first year in office. The worrying thing about Abe is that he may feel relations among the three countries couldn’t get any worse," said Auslin. Abe’s refusal to honor the Chinese and stay grounded in their problematic view of history could be very dangerous. Auslin added, "I think he’s basically saying, ‘This is how I’m going to act. Get used to it.’"

With Angela Kubo in Tokyo.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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