Tuesday 30 April 2002

The significance of the Yasukuni Shrine

Today the Japanese Prime Minister, Koizumi Junichiro arrived in Australia for bilateral trade negotiations. Last week, the Returned Serviceman’s League (RSL) protested against Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, as did the governments of China and South Korea. (The Australian government was non-committal.)

The Yasukuni Shrine honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, among them 14 Class-A war criminals such as World War II Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. Koizumi’s explanation that his visit was part of Japan’s spring peace festival failed to placate the opposition.

The Victorian RSL president, Bruce Ruxton, was reported as saying that Koizumi’s action was “typical” of the Japanese. “The Japanese are like that. It is in their genes … they are war-like,” he added.

Though it is difficult to conceive of a contemporary nation less warlike than the Japanese, many of whom strongly oppose even allowing their Self-Defense Forces to travel overseas to assist in U.N. peacekeeping missions, visits to Yasukuni by Japanese political leaders are a source of ongoing tension between Japan and its neighbors.

After the Japanese defeat in 1945, any government support for the shrine was regarded as unconstitutional and the shrine became a private religious organization. However in 1985, on the advice of a private advisory body that official visits were constitutional, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro visited Yasukuni on August 15th, the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II.

A recent Xinhua News Agency story quotes Li Liangzhi, a professor with the People’s University of China:

Koizumi had delivered a speech at the Memorial Hall of the War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression during his visit to China last October, in which he admitted Japan was responsible for the aggression, said he pondered deeply about the aggression carried out during the war and expressed heartfelt sorrow for it and apologized profoundly.

Six months later, while his words were still reverberating in Chinese people’s ears, Koizumi visited the shrine again.

If the shrine did not house the remains of convicted war criminals, it is doubtful that official visits would provoke such antagonism from Asian countries who still regard the Japanese with bitterness over their wartime atrocities.

Most Japanese raised in the postwar period have only a sketchy knowledge of the events of the Pacific war since Japanese history textbooks have always presented a sanitized view of Japan’s wartime actions. More importantly, there is a deep-seated belief amongst many Japanese that they are the true victims of the war since Japan is the only country that was subjected to atomic attack.

Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni should also be seen in the context of a widespread Japanese cynicism about the validity of the war-crimes tribunals. The entry on “war crimes trials” in the Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan (the standard English language reference work) says:

The term “war crimes” denotes activity in wartime that contravenes recognized standards of military conduct. Theoretically, it should include illegal activity by all participants and should exclude activity not clearly considered illegal. In the aftermath of the war in the Pacific, however, neither condition was applied. The various wartime and postwar trials and tribunals in the Far East considered only Japanese acts, not acts committed by the Allies. As regards the second condition, the bulk of the prosecution at the Tokyo Trial rested on charges not clearly considered illegal. For example, the principal charge at Tokyo was that of “aggression”; yet as recently as 1944, three Allied nations (France, Great Britain, and the United States) had agreed that aggressive war was not a crime. On both scores, then, the war crimes prosecutions relating to the Pacific War are open to the charge, first made by some of the defendants, that they were victors’ justice—revenge dressed up in the trappings of legality.

This Japanese reluctance to take the war crimes trials seriously, while questionable in regard to the Tokyo Trials, is understandable in the case of General Yamashita Tomoyuki who was tried and executed in the Philippines in 1946 for atrocities he had expressly forbidden, committed by Navy troops from whom he was cut off and over whom he had no direct command.

The end result of the tribunals was that, in the words of Meirion and Susie Harries, the war criminals “were converted into near-martyrs, invested with an aura of heroism they had hardly possessed in life.” This is the real reason that Japanese Prime Ministers will continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine.

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[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by wc on 1 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)
Posted by gaun on 13 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

nice site, you know

Posted by Lolita! on 15 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour