George Will on Yasukuni Shrine

Interesting to see one of America’s super-pundits take on a topic that most Americans don’t even know exists. To do so in the Sunday Washington Post is even more surprising.

Young soldiers leaving Japan during that war often would say, “If I don’t come home, I’ll see you at Yasukuni.” The souls of 2.5 million casualties of Japan’s wars are believed to be present at that shrine. In 1978, 14 other souls were enshrined there — those of 14 major war criminals.

Between that enshrinement and 1984, three prime ministers visited Yasukuni 20 times without eliciting protests from China. But both of Japan’s most important East Asian neighbors, China and South Korea, now have national identities partly derived from their experience as victims of Japan’s 1910-45 militarism. To a significant extent, such national identities are political choices .

Leftist ideology causes South Korea’s regime to cultivate victimhood and resentment of a Japan imagined to have expansionism in its national DNA. The choice by China’s regime is more interesting. Marxism is bankrupt and causes cognitive dissonance as China pursues economic growth by markedly un-Marxist means. So China’s regime, needing a new source of legitimacy, seeks it in memories of resistance to Japanese imperialism.

Actually, most of China’s resistance was by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, Mao’s enemies. And Mao, to whom there is a sort of secular shrine in Beijing, killed millions more Chinese than even Japan’s brutal occupiers did.

Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s prime minister, made a campaign promise to visit the shrine regularly, and has done so, most recently last Tuesday, the anniversary of the end of World War II. Shinzo Abe, a nationalist who is almost certain to replace Koizumi, who is retiring next month, seems inclined to continue something like Koizumi’s policy, and for at least one of Koizumi’s reasons: China should not dictate the actions of Japan’s prime ministers.

He goes on to condemn the infamous museum but notes that Koizumi and Abe never visit it, and he let’s them off the hook with the observation that it’s possible to pay tribute to those who died in a war without paying tribute to the cause for which they died. Still, he recommends that Abe stop visiting the shrine altogether,using as an excuse the fact that Hirohito stopped his own visits there after learning of the war criminals whose remains are hosted there.

I love his observattion that China “decided to be incensed about Koizumi’s visits,” dragging Chinese-Japanese relations to a new low.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

Easy for someone like Will not to be perturbed about the late inclusion of war criminals into a shrine honoured by the leaders of a former enemy state; Japan is now a client state of the US which is subservient in all foreign policy. If Japan asked US troops to leave their bases and pushed actively for raprochement with China, all hell would be unleashed in his columns no matter how many years after the war had passed.

August 19, 2006 @ 11:15 pm | Comment

Kier, the US pays for Japan’s defence, and is committed to have American soldiers die in the defence of Japan’s interests. Since Japan’s interests are mostly naturally aligned with the US anyway, and the US allows leeway where those interests diverge, I often wonder who the client state really is.

August 20, 2006 @ 2:54 am | Comment

Good point, especially given Japan’s financial muscle often at the expense of the US, but I’m not sure that siding with a declining US which one day will have to leave the region as main power is in Japan’s interests. We already see Australia starting to make its excuses as major trading partner China grows stronger.

August 20, 2006 @ 4:17 pm | Comment

i know this is an obvious question – but.

why don’t the Japanese simply chizel the names of the war criminals off the shrine?

August 20, 2006 @ 7:15 pm | Comment

Laurie, the Shinto priests at the shrine have said there is no way for the war criminals to be “unenshrined.” I doubt if there is anything physical there to even mark the enshrinement.

Will obviously doesn’t know anything about State Shinto or the actual history of the Shrine, hence his blithe dismissal of the connection between the Shrine and the views espoused in the Shrine Museum. If Will thinks Koizumi’s visits didn’t have the purpose of rehabilitating Japan’s past, then why does he think Koizumi went through with them in spite of the diplomatic cost?

I also think the U.S. attempt to make Japan the “Britain of the East” is yet another one of Bush’s disastrous foreign policy blunders. After Koizumi’s visits, there is not the slightest chance of Japan assuming leadership in Asia and helping “contain” China.

I think Howard French has a much better analysis of Koizumi’s legacy:

August 20, 2006 @ 8:05 pm | Comment

My understanding of Shinto is that the war criminals can indeed not be removed from the shrine, as their souls (or whatever) are now part of the larger, abstract “war dead” there, rather than existing as individuals. Then again, I don’t know a whole lot about Shinto.

We did a report on this on the 15th. My suggested headline: “Koizumi visits war criminal shrine again; China, Korea react predictably.”

Thanks for the Howard French piece, Danfried – first time I’ve liked anything of his.

August 20, 2006 @ 10:53 pm | Comment

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