How do Japan’s leaders reconcile with being on the wrong side of history?

Brahma Chellaney, The National, January 15, 2014

yasukuniHow did Yasukuni, a stately shrine in the heart of Tokyo, become the centre of an international controversy? For an answer, look not so much at the past as at the present, particularly as to how rival states in East Asia are using history as a political instrument.

Unassuaged historical grievances have sharpened rival territorial and maritime claims and constricted diplomatic space for building political reconciliation among China, Japan and South Korea.

In an atmosphere of nationalist grandstanding over conflicting narratives and territorial claims, the risks of a naval or air conflict by accident or miscalculation are increasing in the region, especially between China and Japan.

China and South Korea, which suffered under Japanese occupation, reacted angrily when Shinzo Abe last month became the first Japanese prime minister to pray at Yasukuni since Junichiro Koizumi, who defiantly went each year to the shrine during his 2001-2006 tenure.

Mr Abe, significantly, did not visit the shrine during a previous stint as prime minister. He may well have maintained his restraint had China not provocatively established an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) that sets a perilous precedent in international relations by covering islands that Beijing claims but does not control.

Yasukuni, built by the pre-war Japanese government, enshrines the spirits – not the bones or ashes – of Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including 14 individuals who were convicted and executed as Class A war criminals by a military tribunal.

In keeping with the dictum that history is written by the winners, the tribunal delivered “victors’ justice”, with its proceedings tainted by extreme arbitrariness. Within a few years, Japan’s US occupation authorities freed a number of important Japanese who had been jailed, further undercutting the credibility of the original proceedings.

To China and South Korea, Yasukuni remains a symbol of Japan’s pre-war militarism, with its adjoining museum promoting the view that Japan waged aggression in Asia to liberate it from European colonial rule. Many foreigners contend that the museum presents a revisionist interpretation of the 20th century to portray Japan as the victim in order to rationalise its militaristic past.

All this, however, cannot obscure a key question: even if Japan must still atone for its past colonial rampage, doesn’t it have the same right today as other nations to honour its citizens killed in the Second World War?

All nations, after all, honour their war dead, even if they were the aggressors, plundering distant lands, as European colonial powers did.

Japanese culture, with its martial traditions, places a high premium on honouring the war dead, with the spirits of the fallen soldiers deified by the Japanese. In the absence of any other commemorative monument, Yasukuni serves as Japan’s war memorial.

Japanese politicians, especially those on the right, like to compare Yasukuni with the Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington DC, which also honours and memorialises the war dead.

Given that a prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni ignites nationalistic passions in China and South Korea, would these countries accept an alternative war memorial in Japan? What if Tokyo proposed building a national war memorial where Japan’s leaders could pay respects to the collective memory of the fallen heroes without igniting international controversy?

Such a proposal would most likely come under immediate attack from China and South Korea as a new Japanese project to honour past militarism. In other words, no war memorial, given Japan’s imperialist history, would be free of controversy.

But the history problem extends beyond Japan. Take the case of China, which justifies its increasingly muscular foreign policy by harping on the 110 years of national humiliation it suffered up to 1949. True, Western colonial powers heaped indignities, forcing China, for example, to import opium in return for Chinese goods, while occupying Japanese forces committed atrocities between 1937 and 1945.

China’s selective historical memory, however, is evident from its school textbooks, which blackout the Chinese invasion of Tibet (1950) and its aggression against India (1962) and Vietnam (1979). A Pentagon report has cited several examples of how China repeatedly has carried out military pre-emption since 1949 in the name of strategic defence.

South Korea has eliminated the last vestiges of Japanese colonial rule, with its president, Park Geun-hye, ruling out holding a summit with Mr Abe until his government addressed lingering issues over Japan’s occupation of Korea. By contrast, Taiwan – a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945 – has preserved and declared as national treasures its imperial-era structures, including the Presidential Office Building.

The fact is that history is still being used by some states to instil among their citizens an abiding sense of grievance and victimisation. China and Japan use Nanjing and Hiroshima-Nagasaki, respectively, as national symbols of crimes by outsiders against them.

To understand the risks to peace and stability from the widening gulf between economics and politics in East Asia, one must recall the situation that prevailed in Europe a century ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than East Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet, Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to the Second World War.

Lack of any security framework and weak regional consultation mechanisms in East Asia underscore its imperative to contain the increasing risks to peace by dispensing with historical baggage that weighs down interstate relationships. If the past is not to imperil the present or the future, regional states have little choice but to mend their political relations.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War

(c) The National, 2014.