The reality is that revisionist history is being employed as a political tool not only by Japan but also by those who have turned Yasukuni, where 14 top war criminals are honored, into a potent symbol of friction between countries. In fact, resurgent nationalism has become the single biggest threat to Asia’s renaissance.
For more than half a century, both China and Japan have been dominated by a single party that now finds pandering to nationalistic sentiment attractive in the face of an eroding political base. The spats over history also represent a tussle for leadership in East Asia at a time when China’s dramatic rise has begun to influence geopolitics.
China uses the Nanjing massacre and Japan uses the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as national symbols of crimes by outsiders. Since China became Communist, it has employed purported history to gobble up Tibet, seize Indian territories, assert its claims in the East and South China Seas, and demand Taiwan’s "return."
Today, unassuaged historical grievances not only engender ugly nationalism but also help spread the virus of xenophobia to the homogenized societies of East Asia. Focusing on unsavory history amplifies mistrust and runs counter to the liberalizing elements of globalization.
Yasukuni, a private Shinto memorial to Japan’s war dead, is a symptom of the Asian malady, not the cause.
Koizumi’s annual visits as prime minister to Yasukuni, a legacy of pre-1945 Japanese militarism, have certainly been provocative, particularly his latest – his first on the highly symbolic Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender. Yet it would be naïve to assume that nationalism-mongering in East Asia will end if his successor were to avoid the shrine.
China’s use of the history card against Japan predates Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits. Even if Koizumi’s successor were to change course, Beijing would still be able to exploit the issue of controversial Japanese history textbooks and what it sees as Japan’s insufficient penitence for its 1931 occupation of Manchuria and 1937 invasion of Han China.
In fact, it was in the 1990s, when Japan was still China-friendly and the main aid provider to Beijing, that the Chinese Communists began a "political education" campaign demonizing Japan for its past atrocities. That campaign laid the groundwork for the upsurge of nationalism and the deterioration of China- Japan relations.
In seeking to address domestic political imperatives to replace the increasingly ineffectual Communist ideology with fervent nationalism, China’s rulers have helped whip up Japanese nationalism. That is the kind of political shortsightedness that could one day spell doom for the Communist hold on power.
Those who seek to turn Yasukuni into a bigger issue than it really is are not only taking sides but also playing into the hands of Japanese nationalists, gratuitously arming them with leverage and even encouraging them to raise the stakes.
It is thus little surprise that Foreign Minister Taro Aso last week called for turning Yasukuni into a state memorial, while Koizumi’s most likely successor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Allied tribunal that convicted as "Class A" war criminals – guilty of "crimes against peace" – 14 leading figures who in 1978 were added to Yasukuni’s rolls. For his part, Koizumi has used Yasukuni to stand up to China and fashion an extraordinary legacy pivoted on a nationalist shift in policy.
In his five years in office, Koizumi has not only built popular support for revision of the U.S.-imposed pacifist Constitution but also laid the foundation for the emergence of a more muscular Japan. To the nationalists, his Yasukuni visits epitomize Japan’s return to being a "normal" state.
Both Japan and China need to break free from history. Yet in April 2005, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China demanded that Japan "face up to history squarely," setting the stage for his country’s scripted anti-Japanese mob protests.
While railing against the risk of renewed Japanese militarism in Asia, Wen appeared oblivious to the fact that while Japan has fought no conflict in the past 60 years, China has waged wars on several flanks in the years since it came under Communist rule. Before asking Japan for yet another apology for its atrocities, China should face up to its more recent history of aggression by apologizing to the Tibetans, Indians and Vietnamese.
Disputes over Yasukuni, history textbooks, war museums and xenophobic cultural programming need to be resolved through quiet diplomacy, not an outpouring of inflammatory rhetoric that incites more forbidding nationalism.
Brahma Chellaney, author of the forthcoming "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan," is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
First published: IHT AUGUST 15, 2006