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Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Jinja, or Yasukuni Shrine, on December 26 has yet again created a political storm in Asia and across the Pacific. Singapore, Russia, and the United States have all expressed disappointment over Abe’s decision to visit the controversial shrine, and South Korea’s condemnation took on a much sharper tone. China has not only strongly denounced the visit but also singled out the prime minister for attack. One newspaper even demanded that Abe and other Diet members who have visited Yasukuni be banned from entering China. However, no Japan-related events have been cancelled nor have there been any public demonstrations. Japanese officials have said, however, that the prime minister visited the shrine in a private, not official, capacity.

For disinterested bystanders, the outcry is puzzling. China’s denouncement of Abe, as it celebrates Mao Zedong’s birth anniversary, comes off as particularly farcical considering that the dictator was responsible for, even by conservative estimates, approximately 35 million deaths during his rule; the higher estimates put the number closer to a staggering 100 million victims. Similarly, Russia’s legacy of Lenin, Stalin, and a brutal communist dictatorship gives it little moral ground to criticise Japan. As for the United States, not only do they have the dubious honour of attacking Japan with nuclear weapons not once but twice, their conduct in Vietnam and Cambodia hardly make them shining examples of military virtue. There are, of course, other colourful instances in recent US history such as the Tuskegee experiment which went on for forty years, from 1932 to 1972.

Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, commemorating Japan’s war dead from the Boshin War of 1867 until the end of World War II. Originally called the Tokyo Shokonsha, meaning ‘shrine to summon the souls,’ the structure was renamed to its present title, meaning ‘pacifying the nation, by Emperor Meiji in 1879.

Since 1946, the shrine has been privately funded and operated. This is because the management of a religious shrine went against post-war Japan’s secular laws. Abe is not the first prime minister to visit Yasukuni – in 1975, Takeo Miki became the first prime minister to visit the shrine, though in a private capacity, followed by Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985 and Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996. Junichiro Koizumi visited the war memorial every year of his prime ministership from 2001 to 2006, and since then, Abe has been the first sitting prime minister to go back to Yasukuni. Junior members of Japan’s government, across administrations, have visited the shrine on several occasions.

The site has almost two and a half million kami, spirits, enshrined, including some 28,000 Taiwanese and 21,000 Koreans. Of the two and half million kami, about a thousand were judged to be war criminals by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) set up after World War II. Of these thousand, 14 were designated as ‘Class A’ convicts. It is interesting to note that among the war criminals and the foreigners, many were enshrined at Yasukuni without consulting with surviving family members and in some cases, expressly against the wishes of their families.

The controversy at Yasukuni starts with the IMFTE. Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal argued that the trials were invalid and only a form of siegerjustiz. His book-length dissent, while admitting the horrors of Nanjing, excoriated the Americans for their use of nuclear weapons, fire-bombing cities, and provoking Japan into a war. Furthermore, he argued that all the crimes Japanese officials had been accused of came under Class B (mistreatment of prisoners, murder of civilians, wanton destruction) offences and had no need of post facto Class A (waging wars of aggression) or Class C (crimes against humanity) trials. In response, the United States did not allow the publication of his opinion until 1952 after Japan had signed a treaty recognising the validity of the Tokyo Trials. As a result, Pal’s dissent is the basis of many nationalist Japanese claims and Pal holds a revered place in Japan to this day.

In 1952, the occupation of Japan ended. Groups like the Tokyo Rusu Kazoku Kai and Nippon Izoku Kai had been lobbying the government in the name of the war dead, including war criminals, for public benefits. In May of that year, the Ministry of Justice declared that war criminals were not in the same legal category as criminals convicted by a Japanese court, thus restoring their civil rights. In 1953, a change in how public benefits were managed gave families and survivors of war criminals access to the same benefits families of any public servant who died in the line of duty would get.

In April 1954, the Yasukuni shrine started working closely with Japan’s Health and Welfare Ministry to recover the records of those killed in World War II. Once the data was compiled, the priests would decide who qualified to be enshrined at Yasukuni and by April 1959, enshrinement of all World War II casualties except war criminals was completed. Concurrently, due to an enormous public movement in Japan, the United States agreed to lessen the sentences of those found guilty by the IMFTE, and by the end of 1958, all war criminals were free and political rehabilitated.

In view of the release of the war criminals, the Repatriation Relief Bureau, the section of the Health and Welfare Ministry that liaised with the Yasukuni shrine, sent the records of Class B and Class C war criminals to the shrine. The head priest, Fujimaro Tsukuba, moved to quickly and quietly enshrine the war criminals. By 1967, 984 such war dead had been enshrined, some without permission from their families and others against the express wishes of their families.

The Health and Welfare Ministry also started sending Class A saijin meihyo, or enshrinement information cards, to the Yasukuni shrine in 1966. These included seven war criminals who had been hanged (Hideki Tojo, Seishiro Itagaki, Heitaro Kimura, Kenji Doihara, Akira Muto, Koki Hirota), five who had died in prison (Yoshijiro Umezu, Kuniaki Koiso, Hiranuma Kiichiro, Toshio Shiratori, Shigenori Togo), and two who had died of natural causes before sentencing (Osami Nagano, Yosuke Matsuoka) and were temporarily in a special category. The enshrinement was supposed to be done quietly to avoid a potential public backlash but vocal proponents of enshrinement in the Yasukuni Shrine Council passed a resolution denouncing the IMTFE and demanding that the war criminals be enshrined. The resolution left the date of enshrinement in the hands of the head priest, and Tsukuba, who had reservations about Class A war criminals, put it off until his death in 1978.

The incoming head priest, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, had an imperial background. His grandfather was a feudal lord during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, his father the last minister of the Imperial household, and his father in law a vice-admiral in the Imperial Navy who was tried by the Dutch for Class B and Class C crimes and executed. Matsudaira himself served in the Imperial Navy and later in Japan’s Self Defence Forces. Not surprisingly, Matsudaira abhorred the IMTFE and within three months of his appointment to the high office of the Yasukuni shrine, had all 14 war criminals enshrined.

The covert nature of the enshrinement has evoked much resentment even within Japan. When news of the enshrinement of Class A war criminals broke in April 1979, Emperor Hirohito refused to visit the shrine until his death in 1989. However, imperial emissaries have visited the shrine annually. Contrary to claims of religious or filial piety, the nature in which the war criminals were enshrined betrays the blatantly ideological basis behind the act. It is this fact that fuels the controversy to this day.

Interestingly, in a poll conducted immediately after Abe’s visit to the shrine, 43.2% of those polled said that they appreciated the gesture but a whopping 69.8% said that the prime minister should consider the international ramifications of his actions. Many Japan watchers consider visits to the Yasukuni shrine as playing to a domestic audience rather than international messaging. Indeed, the Abe administration’s approval rating has gone up one point to 55.2% and disapproval has gone down 0.4 points to 32.6% since last week.

Beyond Yasukuni, Japan’s neighbours and the United States are concerned about the country’s historical revisionism, apologies that are seen as half-hearted to the victims of Imperial Japan’s atrocities, and lack of any compensation to the victims as West Germany did with many Jewish families. Yet these issues are not so simple either.

Japan’s historical revisionism is based on the argument that they behaved as any other imperial power of the time. The atrocities committed by the Japanese Army in China, Korea, or elsewhere are to be expected in times of war and no different from European experiences in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, or Asia. This is not easy to refute. European barbarism in many of its colonies was hardly any better, if at all, than life under Japanese occupation. India is familiar with the massive famine in the late 1800s which caused, according to historian Mike Davis, approximately 29 million Indians to perish, and with Colonel Reginald Dyer. The Herero and Nama in Namibia remember the Germans well, as do the Congolese life under Belgian rule. British torture and war crimes in Yemen, Oman, Malaya, or during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya are best left unmentioned for the benefit of those with a queasy stomach. None of this exonerates Japanese war crimes but it puts them in the context of the milieu of the age of imperialism, thereby distributing the culpability to actors traditionally left unconsidered when discussing Japan.

Japan has also had trouble with its history textbooks trying to whitewash the role of the Imperial Army during World War II. The use of Korean women as sex slaves for their soldiers, chemical and biological warfare conducted by the Imperial Army, and inhuman medical experiments conducted by the infamous Unit 731 are sometimes dampened. Nonetheless, Thomas Berger, a professor at Boston University, says that these are not nearly as universal as made out to be and that Japanese history textbooks discuss Nanjing or the use of Korean comfort women in a fairly open manner. Evidence of this is seen in opinion polls that show most Japanese to be apologetic for their country’s behaviour in Asia during the Second World War. In addition, Japan has also sponsored joint historical research with both South Korea and China. In comparison, Chinese and South Korean textbooks opt for a far more hateful view of Japan than attempt any reconciliation.

Japan’s apologies have admittedly been awkward and half-hearted, and always been under a threat of retraction; it is no secret that Abe is uncomfortable with the 1993 statement released by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono as well as the 1995 statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama over Japan’s wartime actions. Nonetheless, these apologies remain unchanged for now. There is, however, the question of whether any apology by Japan will ever be good enough and if Seoul and Beijing are ready to accept an apology from Tokyo.

So far, there have been few signs that receptive ears await in Asia. When Japan set up the Asian Women’s Fund in 1994 to offer compensation to South Korea’s comfort women, Seoul established a rival group rather than support the Japanese effort. Meanwhile, other countries in Asia such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines have forgiven the Japanese and moved on.

China, like South Korea, remains unmoved by Japanese apologies. Beijing has opportunistically stoked its subjects’ passions against Japan and allows their display conveniently such as in August and September 2012. China has also used exports of rare earths, a critical component for Japan’s technology industries, as a bargaining chip on several occasions. All signs from China indicate that they want to use Japan’s war guilt as a psychological weapon rather than find genuine reconciliation, a technique not entirely unknown to them. In Abe, they might have met a prime minister who does not care anymore and seeks to forge links with Australia, India, and China’s southeast Asian neighbours to counter China’s bullying.

The reaction from Japan’s neighbours, however much it needs to be contextualised, is understandable but the United States’ disappointment is harder to fathom. Arguably, the United States meted out harsher punishment to the Japanese than they received from them during World War II; furthermore, the attack on Pearl Harbour may have been militarily unexpected (due to logistics) but hardly out of the blue politically – the crippling sanctions imposed upon Japan in the 1930s and the Hull note were designed to provoke a response. Interestingly, after the war, the United States’ NSC 48-2 imagined an Asian order almost identical to Japan’s pre-war Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Today, when Washington is actively seeking partners for its pivot to Asia, stomping on one of its closest allies in the region seems counter-productive.

It is also hard to miss the irony in the US criticism of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni when US presidents visit the Vietnam War Memorial regularly. Washington’s conduct in that little squabble in Southeast Asia has been spared the war criminal tag only because they did not lose the war as completely as Japan did World War II; even the annual celebrations of Columbus Day and Thanksgiving may be questioned for their genocidal roots.

The knee-jerk outcry over a Japanese prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni shrine is very much overdone. Admittedly, the enshrinement of war criminals was ideologically motivated and done surreptitiously; however, it is equally true that there are legitimate questions about war-time conduct and the trial for both sides. This is not to excuse the cruelty of Japan’s Unit 731 but to recognise, as the old cliché goes, that all war is a crime. The enshrinement of IMTFE criminals at Yasakuni shrine, especially against the wishes of the families, is an issue that must be solved internally by the Japanese. It has, no doubt, tainted Japanese nationalism; but then, which nationalism has ever remained untarnished?