Imperial baggage

Print edition : September 08, 2006

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi touches a raw nerve by making another visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine.


Junichiro Koizumi follows a Shinto priest at the Yasukuni shrine on August 15.-KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP

POST-IMPERIAL Japan, just over 60 years old, has grown up, for the most part, under the Yoshida Doctrine of economic dynamism at home and a self-effacing dependence on the United States on the external front. The doctrine, enunciated by Japan's yesteryear-leader Shigeru Yoshida, was not a choice of national volition. It was the anguished response of a defeated country, in the mid-1940s, to the dictates of the U.S. as the first "modern" imperial-power-on-the-prowl with a stunning global reach.

And now, on August 15, the 61st anniversary of the end of the Second World War that served as the basis of Yoshida's policy, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has fashioned a new doctrine. The as-yet-untitled Koizumi Doctrine can be portrayed as a three-dimensional Japanese policy. It would define a resurgent Japanese nationalism at home and abroad, laced with economic reforms on the domestic front and a sense of self-respecting partnership with the U.S. on the global stage.

In what became a divisive move within Japan itself, Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on August 15 - for the sixth time in five years as Prime Minister. Each of his previous visits was denounced by Japan's neighbours with immense moral contempt and political conviction. Koizumi's latest visit has provoked the ire of these neighbours, including some South-East Asian countries, on an unprecedented scale. Their peoples, by and large, share the sentiments of their leaders. Koizumi, for the first time, chose for the Yasukuni pilgrimage the very day that Tokyo's neighbours would remember as the 61st anniversary of their joyous liberation from imperial Japan. To them, Yasukuni continues to epitomise a political culture of aggression, regardless of the shrine's status in Japan itself as a place of solemnity.

Koizumi's argument on this occasion, as indeed in the past, was that he merely wished to pay homage to the wartime victims that the Yasukuni Shrine honours as martyrs and virtual deities in the Shinto tradition. The shrine has, on its roll-call of martyrs, more than 2.5 million people, including 14 Japanese who were indicted by a U.S.-led tribunal as Class-A war criminals and punished accordingly after the end of the Second World War.

The unanimous view of Japan's neighbours, especially those that suffered under its colonial reign and wartime agenda of occupation, is that these 14 men, including a former Prime Minister, can have no place of honour anywhere in the world at any time. The controversial deification of these war criminals is seen by these countries as a matter of international concern, not just one of Japan's internal politics and culture. And, the argument runs, a Japanese Prime Minister cannot, this being the case, bow in memory of these proclaimed war criminals and still hope to have friendly relations with neighbours.

The impugned names of these war criminals were enshrined by the Yasukuni authorities in 1978 and not immediately after the Second World War. While this aspect lends itself to an argument, outside Japan, about a political agenda as the main reason for this action, many Japanese themselves have now begun to question the usefulness of the Yasukuni honours list for their country's interests abroad.

Two factors influence the thinking of the Japanese people as they now begin to wish for a prominent place under the sun of current globalisation. First, the 2.5 million people honoured at Yasukuni include several thousand non-Japanese nationals - a number of "captive" Koreans of Japan's now-bygone colonial era and also some Taiwan residents of the same period. All those people, as also the Japanese in the Yasukuni list of heroes, are believed to have laid down their lives in the cause of Japan's glory at home and abroad during several periods of hostilities in the country's history, including the Second World War. Japan's adversaries during those hostilities were not just the Chinese and Koreans but also the United States and others at one time or another. So, the presence of thousands of non-Japanese among the Yasukuni roll-call of honour has led to questions in Japan as to whether any homage at the shrine can be equated with a sense of nationalism.

PROTESTERS OUTSIDE THE JAPANESE Embassy in Beijing following Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni war shrine.-GREG BAKER/AP

The second, and relatively new, aspect of the politicisation of Yasukuni relates to a recent "disclosure" that has shocked a number of Japanese people. The story doing the rounds is that the Yasukuni Shrine decided to honour the 14 war criminals in 1978, secretly at that time, against counsel of the then Emperor, Hirohito. This version has gained political traction because many present-day Japanese tend to mitigate their sense of guilt over their country's wartime atrocities by associating those activities with the military establishments of past imperial eras.

It is in this new domestic context of a certain divisiveness that Koizumi has emphasised, more vehemently than at any time after his previous Yasukuni visits, that the latest one was an exercise in reaffirming Japan's resolve to refrain from waging wars now and in the future. And, he did not at all pray for the war criminals. To him, Yasukuni is not an emblem of Japan's militarism by any watch of the past, present or even the future. Koizumi has indicated he would retire from politics by September 20. In his future-oriented world-view of Japan as a benign great power, Yasukuni can serve as a rallying political platform for self-respecting nationalism.

In global politics, surely, any state policy of self-respecting nationalism and external partnerships is not necessarily a novel or destabilising idea. But Tokyo is still burdened by a huge historical baggage - the cumulative effect of imperial Japan's aggressions and other actions against its neighbours before and during the Second World War. For the most part, this is constantly kept in focus by its neighbours, especially the now-ascendant China and also South Korea.

Japan appears puzzled that its post-imperial "cheque book diplomacy" of economic assistance to the neighbours and others has not really mollified their feelings over the episodal history that, in Tokyo's reckoning, ended 61 years ago. Japan tends to feel that its frequent and public apologies for its wartime atrocities should have assuaged any genuine sense of outrage.

But it is not easy to determine the quantum of apologies and economic assistance that can now satisfy China or South Korea or even some South-east Asian states that had suffered under imperial Japan. These countries argue, not all of them openly, that Japan has not fully changed its spots. So the initiative rests with Koizumi and his successor to defuse tensions with its neighbours, especially if Washington, in its current preoccupations with West Asia, were to follow Henry Kissinger's one-time suggestion that it maintain a balance between Beijing and Tokyo.

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