History Evoked for the Wrong Reasons: Abe, Japan’s War Dead and Chinese Ire

In August 1985, Yasuhiro Nakasone became the first post-WWII Japanese Prime Minister to visit the Yasukuni Shrine to pay tribute to his country’s war dead. As we are constantly reminded, by the Chinese and Koreans in particular, the Shrine commemorates 14 Class A war criminals, in addition to many other soldiers that Japan’s East Asian neighbours would look upon with distaste.

Emperor Hirohito visits Yasukuni Shrine in 1935
Emperor Hirohito visits Yasukuni Shrine in 1935

Nakasone, perhaps unaware of the uproar his visit would provoke, cancelled a subsequent trip to the Yasukuni Shrine in October 1985. A year later, Michel Oksenberg wrote:

To be sure, resentment of Japan persists among a populace that still recalls the brutality of the 1931-45 invasion and occupation, and Chinese leaders give voice to these memories, as when they protested Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s August 1985 official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead. But mostly the reformers have tried to cultivate favorable popular sentiment toward Japan.

Fast forward three decades and the same cannot be said for China’s current leaders (who can hardly be labelled reformers in any case). Rather than trying to cultivate favourable popular sentiment toward Japan, the current CCP hierarchy has sought to cast the Japanese as the Home Front enemy, continuously provoking feelings of hatred from within their own population.

At the centre of this nationalistic casting of the enemy is the recalling of Japan’s wartime militarism and aggression. Current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2013 to howls of condemnation from the Chinese. Now, it has been revealed that in April he sent a letter of commemoration to be read at a ceremony at the Koyasan Okuno-in Temple in the west of the country, a memorial that pays tribute to some 1,180 convicted war criminals.

Graves at Japan's latest controversial shrine
Graves at Japan’s latest controversial shrine

There is a constant fear in Northeast Asia that Japan is reverting to the dark old days of nationalistic militarism. Certainly, the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War and WWII remain a bitter memory, as the Chinese are quick to remind the world.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, the present generation cannot be held accountable for the actions of its predecessors. They should not be forced to make grovelling apologies or made to feel guilty about crimes they did not commit. So long as they do not try to rewrite history (which some Japanese politicians have been accused of) there should be an endeavour to move forwards.

Consequently, the decision by Japanese politicians to commemorate their war dead (the majority of whom are innocent of any atrocities) should not be castigated. Knowing the typical Chinese response to such visits, Abe was ill-advised to have visited Yasukuni in 2013, particularly during a period of tense Sino-Japanese relations characterised by territorial disputes. However, he is within his rights to send a private message of commemoration to a ceremony honouring the sacrifice made by many normal soldiers.

The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the CCP, has responded to his letter, however, in typical fashion:

If the prime minister really wants to realize “eternal peace,” he should avoid a repeat of Japan’s past mistakes and crimes, instead honoring war criminals as heroes and fanning up the country’s nationalist sentiment, some observers here noted.

It is presumed that there was a slight mistranslation between the Chinese and English versions but the gist of the message is clear.

The Chinese diaspora is equally influenced by the CCP's Japan-bashing
The Chinese diaspora is equally influenced by the CCP’s Japan-bashing

Interestingly, Allan Romberg made the following observation in a 1985 article, shortly after Nakasone first visited the Yasukuni Shrine:

Yet, the current aversion to militarism is strong in Japan, and confidence in U.S. security commitments remains high. Rearmament is, therefore, unlikely. But the coming generation of Japanese political leaders does not have a particular sense of guilt about the war or a strong sense of indebtedness to America for generosity in its aftermath; one ought not, therefore, assume that current constraints will always outweigh other considerations if, over time, Japan feels isolated and besieged.

Funnily enough there remains a general aversion to militarism in Japan and great faith in the US alliance. The point about Japan feeling isolated and besieged is noteworthy, however. Should the Americans continue to divert their attention away from their East Asian allies, the constant bombardment of unnecessary Chinese criticism may force Japan to reconsider its international standing.

History should not be forgotten, but this does not mean that we should not look to the future. China must realise this.


Oksenberg, M. ‘China’s Confident Nationalism’, Foreign Affairs (1986)

Romberg, A.D. ‘New Stirrings in Asia’, Foreign Affairs (1985)

Boris Fitting Candidate for Uxbridge Seat: joins a long line of ‘interesting characters’

As expected, Boris Johnson will run for the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in next year’s general election as he seeks a return to Parliament. Whilst he will continue to serve as Mayor of London until May 2016, Johnson is thought to have ambitions on the leadership of the Conservative Party if David Cameron fails to secure re-election as Prime Minister next year.

The inestimable Boris Johnson
The inestimable Boris Johnson

Johnson, an enigmatic and unpredictable character, would join a long list of ‘interesting’ Uxbridge MPs were he to be elected. Current incumbent John Randall is perhaps an exception, staying out of the limelight in most matters despite a public declaration of opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Other past sitters include:

Michael Shersby – noted for having introduced 8 Private Members’ Bills which have made it to law.

John Ryan – a Labour politician noted for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War.

Frank Beswick – a Spanish Civil War journalist, WWII RAF pilot and observer of the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.

Lord Llewellin – a career Army officer who won the military cross in 1917, he served as Minister of Aircraft Production during early Anglo-American collaboration on the atomic bomb program.

Lord Llewellin, 1940
Lord Llewellin, 1940

Charles Dennistoun Burney – a prolific aeronautical engineer who designed an array of seaplanes, torpedoes and anti-mine devices before becoming a consultant for Vickers and then becoming involved in the development of the glide bomb during WWII.

Burney also developed a series of streamline cars
Burney also developed a series of streamline cars

Charles Thomas Mills – At 23, the youngest MP on his accession to the seat in 1910, Mills was killed in action at Hulluch during the Battle of Loos in WWI.

Frederick Dixon-Hartland – the first MP for Uxbridge, he was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society who published a travel account entitled: ‘Tapographia; or a collection of tombs of royal and distinguished families, collected during a tour of Europe’.

Certainly a fascinating group to follow, Johnson is unlikely to disappoint. A pragmatic and effective politician with a penchant for bizarre references and historical anecdotes, he has proved to be a popular Mayor, although some remain unconvinced by his bluster.

Whilst it is hard at this stage to imagine him securing enough party support to usurp Cameron, a difficult election in 2015 for the Conservatives could clear the path for Johnson to become Uxbridge’s first Prime Minister, in addition to its latest eccentric political representative.