A Provocative Absence: Shinzo Abe and the Yasukuni Shrine

The particularly destabilising role of the Yasukuni Shrine in Sino-Japanese relations is well known. The Shinto memorial commemorates the spirits of Japan’s war dead, amongst which are 14 Class A war criminals from WWII whose actions devastated large parts of East Asia, especially China and Korea.

The soul of the infamous Hideki Tojo is venerated at Yasukuni Shrine
The soul of the infamous Hideki Tojo is venerated at Yasukuni Shrine

In the recent past, historical tensions have been evoked by the visit of Japanese politicians to the Shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WWII. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been a frequent visitor to the Shrine in the past, although not whilst holding top office. He retained that tradition today by not joining several Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers at the controversial memorial.

Abe had said several weeks ago that he did not intend to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, fully aware of the fuss it would create in China and Korea, particularly the former, whose leaders refuse to ignore any apparent attempts by the Japanese to glorify their martial past.

One of Abe's predecessors, Junichiro Koizumi, visited the Shrine whilst in office
One of Abe’s predecessors, Junichiro Koizumi, visited the Shrine whilst in office

If Abe’s absence was supposed to ease Sino-Japanese tensions (which remain volatile thanks to territorial disputes in the East China Sea) it failed. That is because the nationalist-minded leader sent a ritual offering for ceremonies at the Shrine, thus provoking a furious response from China and Korea, both of whose governments have summoned their Japanese ambassador. In acting in absence, which was not expected, Abe has come across as even more offensive to historical sensitivities. 

In the case of the Yasukuni Shrine, both ‘sides’ need to show restraint and maturity. It could be argued that Abe has every right (like all Japanese citizens) to commemorate his country’s war dead. Having said that, the Prime Minister would have been fully aware of the symbolic nature of his ‘offering’ given the fact that the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine severely downplays Japan’s wartime culpability.

In a typical piece of historical revisionism, the museum refuses to place responsibility for the war in the Pacific on Japanese imperialism, dismisses the infamous Nanjing Massacre of 1937 as a battle and makes no reference of Japan’s use of ‘comfort women’ and biological warfare.

Despite overwhelming evidence, many Japanese deny the Nanjing massacre
Despite overwhelming evidence, many Japanese deny the Nanjing massacre

China and Korea, meanwhile, have to simultaneously move on from the past. It is the single-biggest barrier – greater even than North Korean obstinacy – to enabling a united economic and political bloc in Northeast Asia which could have positive ramifications for the development and security of the region.

Instead of engaging in petty shows of nationalist defiance, both sides need to appreciate the benefits of resolving historical animosities, however difficult, and not waste the chance for positive integration.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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