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Rewriting History at the Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Shrine memorializes Japan’s war dead, including WWII-era war criminals. For this reason, it has always been a controversial memory site. A much greater problem than the shrine itself, however, is the revisionist museum attached to it.

On 29 April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed a joint session of the Senate and House during his official visit to the United States, the first Japanese Prime Minister to do so. A major distraction in the lead-up to his speech was a renewed debate on how Mr Abe would handle the issue of Japanese culpability and atonement for its role during World War II. China and South Korea continue to press Japan to apologise. South Korea also highlights Japan’s role as a colonial power and reminds the world of “comfort women”, a euphemism for sex slaves.

Back in Japan, Mr Abe’s ambivalence is supported by influential nationalists in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party who feel that China and South Korea are manipulating the history issue for cynical political advantage. They want to undermine Japan’s regional and global standing and seek perpetual apologies from Japan. In Washington, Mr Abe handled the issue delicately by visiting the World War II Memorial and mentioning his “remorse” and “repentance” in his congressional address. But the issue will not die.

Memorializing War Criminals

Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead since the Meiji Restoration, has emerged as a litmus test. It is seen by many as a reminder of Japanese World War II militarism. Although Mr Abe will not visit Yasukuni Shrine while he is Prime Minister, he will continue to send a ritual offering and senior LDP members will pay their respects on ritual holidays. China, South Korea and Taiwan will criticize these moves.

The criticism of visits follows the enshrining of 14 Class A war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine in 1978, without any public consultations. Japan’s emperors have not visited the shrine since then. The enshrining and the criticisms of Japan’s neighbours have reinforced the controversial image of Yasukuni Shrine.

I visited the shrine on a recent visit to Tokyo in an effort to understand the sentiments of Japanese and Chinese protagonists. The shrine had an air of tranquility, with older Japanese paying their respect to their ancestors as “guardian deities”. I felt that it was understandable that the Japanese people would commemorate the memories of their war dead.

A Revisionist View

The real problem is the museum attached to the shrine. It presents a revisionist view of World War II which draws attention to the perspective of the Shinto leadership responsible for the shrine.

As a Southeast Asian, I was shocked by the honoured place at the entrance to the museum of the original locomotive used during the opening of the Siam/Burma railway in 1943. The building of the “death railway” resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Southeast Asian forced labourers and 13,000 allied prisoners-of-war. There was no indication of the lives lost or the privations of the conscripted work force. The beautifully reconstructed Zero fighter and heavy artillery located near the locomotive paled in comparison.
Although there were a wide variety of displays, the highlight of the museum was the section on kamikaze suicide attacks. There were photographs of successful kamikaze air attacks on naval vessels. I should have been prepared for this as a statue honouring kamikaze suicide pilots was in the well-tended garden just before the entrance to the museum. But there was more to follow.

There were photos of those who had undertaken these attacks, including poems and letters they had written before they embarked on these acts. There was a display of a kamikaze mini-submarine torpedo and a piloted kamikaze glider with three rocket engines that fired for nine seconds each which would be released from an aircraft.

As someone familiar with the eulogies to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria suicide terrorists, I found this paean to Japanese suicide pilots a chilling reminder.

The stark revisionist message was dramatized in a 50 minute documentary film which highlighted that Japan was forced to go to war by the American oil embargo imposed to support American demands that Japan withdraw from China. The film denies the Nanjing Massacre and criticises the “wrongful” convictions in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Japanese Role Not Recognised

International attention has focused on the visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders. The displays in the museum are really more worrying. It reminds us of the lack of recognition in Japan of the Japanese role in World War II.

Stridently nationalistic views of history in China and Japan make peace-making between these Asian powers more difficult. This is the difference between East and Southeast Asia. Southeast Asians remember the past, face the present and hope for a better future. They are able to reconcile with Japan, just as they have reconciled with China, which has never acknowledged its role in supporting insurgencies in Southeast Asia after World War II. By contrast, historical memories shape Chinese and Japanese perceptions, preventing the building of bridges and risking future conflict.

Read more in this debate: Paul Williams, Brigitte Sion, Witold Rybczynski.

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