Yasukuni Shrine


How to Capture Japan’s “History issue”

The Strong, Weak, and Vulnerable (1) How to Capture Japan’s “History issue”


Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine (A Shinto Shrine that commemorate Japan’s war dead. The Shrine is controversial as the commemoration has included Japan’s top war criminals from the Post WW2 Tokyo War Tribunals ) at the end of 2013, as many pundits have analyzed, appeared to be shrewdly planned to be carried out at the opportune moment, that is to minimize its negative impact. Most of the domestic media were virtually in year-end holiday mode, and there was little time to prepare feature programs and in-depth coverage. As a result, the immediate effect of the incident seemed to be limited compared to pass such visits. Criticizing remarks from China and South Korea were to be expected considering already turbulent relations. What seemed to surprise conservatives was the “disappointment” from the US, albeit coming from a low ranking spokesperson. Although the incident seems to be behind us for now, it will likely reemerge as a thorny political issue that hangs over the region’s diplomatic seen for the coming months, perhaps until PM Abe visits the Shrine again. It may become a bigger point still, depending on how Abe’s domestic agenda, i.e. Abenomics progresses.

Among the five major domestic newspapers, Sankei featured the visit favorably, Yomiuri took a neutral stand, while Asahi, Mainichi and Nikkei reacted negatively. This domestic backlash, especially by Japan’s own media is something seldom mentioned internationally, yet cannot be overlooked. As for the more emerging internet media and opinions, the views varied widely as a matter of course, but if one focuses on the critical comments to the visit, it was based largely on the following three key elements:
(1) Concern that it was a detrimental move from the standpoint of diplomatic relationships especially in weakening Japan’s position, not only against China and South Korea, but also towards the United States and the international community;
(2) Concern that it had created an unnecessary distraction in the political arena when the nation should be focused on bailing out of a deflationary spiral and revitalize the economy;
(3) Feeling of dislike toward Abe’s personal conservative tendencies including his administration’s views of history and statehood.

However, the essence of the Yasukuni controversy would be overlooked if we just perceived it in the context of diplomatic relationships or Japan’s economy. Both of these perspectives are looking at the problem from an utilitarian view (that the Prime Minister’s visit to Yasukuni does not benefit Japan). On the other hand, those who support the visit are fundamentally treating the issue as a matter of thought and creed. Among the pundits, economists and private sector leaders in particular, who commented on the PM’s visit, tend to only express their concerns from a utilitarian standpoint, carefully steering away from the issue of thought and creed. In post-war Japan, especially since the 80’s, those belonging to Japan’s establishment (i.e. the mainstream faction within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the bureaucracy, and the mainstream media) positioned the controversy from the standpoint of utilitarianism, not directly addressing the issue of thought and creed. Former premiers like Nakasone and Hashimoto who were proactive about visiting Yasukuni stayed consistent with their views, claiming that it was a matter of thought and creed. And yet, they did not attempt to act on their personal belief on the basis of utilitarianism.

Attempting to address issues of thought and creed based on utilitarianism is typical for “professionals”. Whereas, the opinions supporting the Yasukuni visit come from “amateur” preferences that prioritizes the politician’s personal beliefs, or the general public’s who elected these individuals to represent them. In recent years, the center of gravity between these two political dynamics is shifting. Many critics have interpreted this shift as Japan’s tilt to the right. However, what is more fundamental is the diminishing trust given to professionals by the Japanese public. Former PM Koizumi, arguably a politician blessed with the best political instincts in the last 20 years, sniffed out this trend and continued to visit Yasukuni until the closing days of his administration, weighing amateurish preference more heavily than professional logic. PM Koizumi remarked, “Has Japan’s relationship with China and with South Korea improved since Japan’s PM refrained from visiting Yasukuni, NO”. Perhaps too simplistic, but it conveyed the essence of his pragmatic way of thinking to which a large proportion of the public supported.

Fortunately, post-war Japan has not seen any new war casualties, except for a handful of Self Defense Force members who died in accidents. This means that there is literally no one who has made new personal connections with Yasukuni Shrine. If that is so, Yasukuni symbolizes the respect to the soldiers and civilians who sacrificed their lives, and desire to remember Japan’s history favorably. In more current terms, Yasukuni serves as an embodiment of respect towards people in uniform knowing that their duties involve life-staking risks. This sense of respect is in concert with the attitude to disengage from the utilitarianism of capitalism that has spread across the world after the financial crisis.

In this sense, PM Abe’s remarks that Yasukuni symbolizes peace, not war has genuine support. What is critically lacking from this view is the objectivity to understand what context has lead people to look at this issue and come to such diverse conclusions and sentiments. The notion to support the Yasukuni visit seems to boil down to the visit is justified domestically and that it should also be accepted in the same way internationally. Equally concerning is that these views often position itself as the one and only indisputable justice. This one-track way of thinking even leads to the nave belief that it is possible to “convince the Americans” to support the Yasukuni visit. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect the United States to play the role of objective arbitrator on the issue, considering the US was at war with Japan.

In the real world of international relations, not so often do we actually see disputes getting so fierce that they end up escalating into war. The nuclear deterrent that the major powers maintain by pointing missiles at each other is, in a way, is much more severe than any historical grudge. Unlike high-tension border disputes or conflicts over sacred lands, the continuous debate on how to interpret historical events is not something that triggers wars. This is not to say that historical grudges have the power to totally annoy and even infuriate neighboring peoples.

The world is filled with friction. The absence of mutual understanding and the sense of aversion held among antagonizing nations are bound to linger for some time. That is why, to a certain extent, we have to give up the nave hope of put those criticizing us into our shoes to enable them to better understand where our views are coming from. What we have today in East Asia is a situation where the people in different countries are raising the heat of friction between each other because they feel that the prevailing winds is not as bitter and critical so as to lead them immediately to armed conflict. Even though this is not a desirable situation, it would be fair to say that this is the reality that we most probably have to live with for a while.

If I were to indulge beyond my sense of discomfort, Japan must face what it has shied away from for so long: how to mourn our war dead, and to treat those in uniform who risk their lives in duty to their country. Our efforts to “open our eyes” to this 70 year neglect, by no means, leads us to affirming the current position of Yasukuni and justifying official visits by the PM. Rather, it would require us to ask ourselves once again, who this “we” that I have been writing about really is. Our attempt to come to terms with history should not be carried out viciously, neither by forced assimilation or the exposure of those responsible as the dreg of society that deserves severe punishment. Rather, it should be conducted with a sense of typical Japanese vagueness, even looseness. But what it should do at the very least, is to determine how foolish decisions were made to drive a country into catastrophic war. This will enable us to see that the soldiers and people were both aggressors and victims at the same time.

The tone of the comments we hear today, regardless of whether they are coming from the left or the right, seems as if there are all coming from the “weak”, someone who is feeling disenfranchised from society in some way.

Looking back at the past few years of Japanese politics, many foreign media reported about the trend of Japan drifting to the right, as evident from the hefty victory in general elections by the LDP. The repercussions to the series of controversial comments made by popular Osaka Mayor Hashimoto also accelerated this notion. Experts in diplomatic affairs are warning that if PM Abe decides to prioritize his “revisionist” issues symbolized in the constitution amendment over economic policies to bail the nation out of the deflation, then he will put Japan’s relations in jeopardy with not only China and South Korea, but even with the United States.

These concerns about Japan’s rightward tilt are challenged domestically by those who emphasize the importance of our own will verses how others may perceive us. Moreover, it puts into question the tradition of treating diplomatic issues as something to be handled by the professionals, somehow separated from the democratic process. A nation’s sense of pride is something that not only involves your self-evaluation but is also affected by how others evaluate you. Therefore, the pride of the Japanese is, to some extent, affected by how Japan is evaluated in the international community. The rightward tilt, if such a trend really exist, is based on the desire of the Japanese to hold their own views and express them loud and clear, without worrying about what others may think, which was the self-conscious mindset embedded since the defeat in WWII.

What is important about this increasing desire of the Japanese assertiveness is what is at the core of this trend. I believe the debate regardless of its international repercussion is domestic. The so-called right wing element of the Yasukuni movement is struggling to fight against the opposing arguments faced domestically. In post-war Japan, liberal forces mainly composed of the media have insistently challenged potentially right-wing politicians by asking them whether they intend to visit Yasukuni or not, how they view sensitive historical issues, and using these controversial topics as the “litmus test” to unveil their political inclinations. The liberal forces that formed the mainstream of the society were able to eliminate and marginalize those who were leaning too much to the right, at times with witch-hunt like severity. As a result, the right-wingers in Japan were forced to live as the socially weak.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the right wing that we see today was indeed an ideological group formed, as a byproduct, by the dominant liberal force. However, the people have chosen PM Abe for a second time to lead the country, knowing clearly what kind of historical views he holds along with his conservative tendencies. The politicians in the conservative faction who have long been treated as an ideological minority finally gained public support in the last election. It is literally “payback time” against their domestic opponents who have so long kept them marginalized. To analyze the diplomatic issues Japan is facing today, we therefore need to analyze this rich domestic context. Otherwise, we will only gain a superficial understanding about the Prime Minister’s qualities and the trend of the public tilting rightward.

What becomes of a society where both conservatives and liberals position themselves as the weak? How do you distinguish true weakness with disguised strength? And more importantly, who gives voice to the truly voiceless? Although Japan is often described as a homogeneous society, it is actually a society where closed organizations and local colors exist multi-dimensionally as microcosmic entities scattered around to form a social cosmos. Organizations in this country share the same characteristic of protecting their own village culture, but seldom interact and fuse. The actual political landscape of Japan today is composed of political parties of national scale competing with each other, national television networks and centrally controlled flow of money. People with domestic agenda raise their voices loud to tell the public that they are the genuine social weak, and aim at gaining the right for “front page coverage”. However, by recognizing themselves as the minority, what they are essentially doing is provoking power struggle, and putting them into a seclusive position that does not represent the majority.

What kind of initiatives can be taken to reform a social cosmos comprised of only such “weak groups” into a forward-looking constructive society? In the next serial, I would like to dig deeper on the nuances of post-war Japan’s ideological struggle, and unveil the origins of how the rightward movement became what it is today.

The original version was posted on The Security Studies Unit (SSU) of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute (PARI) on April 15, 2014. Also,  the article was initially written in Japanese on Lully Miura’s Blog “Yamaneko-Nikki” on January 10, 2014