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)

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

3 thoughts on “History Evoked for the Wrong Reasons: Abe, Japan’s War Dead and Chinese Ire”

  1. Good point…but still, don’t forget how involved the ancestor worship religion is. Any sign of ‘respect’ or honoring those that have brutalized the Chinese and Koreans is probably equal in their eyes to a German politician honoring Adolph Hitler.

    1. That is certainly a valid point and history can, of course, never be forgotten…it would be encouraging, however, for the Chinese to take a more pragmatic stance. It might aid the cause of CCP legitimacy in the short-term to pander to nationalistic sentiment but a younger generation of Japanese, frustrated by economic malaise and the country’s lack of presence on the world stage, may ultimately turn China’s accusations regarding a revival of militarism and racism into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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