Japan and Germany, now strong democracies and close allies of the United States, have dealt very differently with their dark pasts. Post-World War II German leaders have expressed shame and remorse for the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Nazi Germany. Japanese leaders, even today, are ambivalent in how they deal with past atrocities committed by Japanese warriors before and during World War II.
Consider the choice of symbolic sites chosen by the German and Japanese leaders to visit last year. In August 2013, Angela Merkel became the first German Chancellor to visit the Nazi concentration camp Dachau. She remarked that the camp filled her “with deep sadness and shame,” adding that the camp stood for “a horrible and unprecedented chapter of our history.”
Chancellor Merkel did not visit Dachau or any war memorial to honor the German soldiers who fought and died in the service of the Nazi regime. She visited Dachau to pay tribute to its victims.
In contrast, on December 26, 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals from the World War II period and many more Japanese soldiers with the blood of innocent civilians on their hands are honored. Millions of Chinese civilians and soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of Koreans, died as a direct result of Japan’s past history of military aggression and brutality. Yet when China, along with South Korea, criticized Prime Minister Abe’s decision to visit this controversial shrine, a top aide to the prime minister dismissed such criticism as interference in Japan’s “domestic affairs.” And in responding to disappointment expressed by the Obama administration regarding the prime minister’s shrine visit, this same aide compared Yasukuni Shrine with Arlington National Cemetery that honors U.S. veterans. There is no expression of sadness or shame in such defensive rationalizations for an insensitive homage to Japan’s inglorious military history.
The shrine Prime Minister Abe chose to visit honors the war dead who served the Emperor of Japan during wars from 1867–1951, encompassing World War II. 1,068 of the enshrined war dead were POWs convicted after World War II of some level of war crime, including the notorious Hideki Tōjō. This war criminal served as a general of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), the leader of the Taisei Yokusankai (Japan’s para-fascist organization) and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan during World War II when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. Tojo had been part of the Japanese Army stationed in Northeast China in the first half of the 20th century where he cracked down on the anti-Japanese struggle of the people in Northeast China and then led invasions into other parts of China.
Thus, it is little wonder that the Chinese foreign ministry condemned Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, in which Tojo is one of the honorees, saying: “Honoring the shrine is, in its essence, embellishing and falsely beautifying Japan’s military invasion and colonization.”
China’s United Nations Ambassador Liu Jieyi told UN correspondents on January 8th that “It all boils down to whether the leader of a country should stand on the side of maintaining the principles and purposes of the charter of the UN or to side with war criminals. The international community should remain vigilant and issue a warning … that Abe must correct his erroneous outlook of history, he must correct his mistakes and he must not slip further down the wrong path.”
In a white paper distributed to UN correspondents, China described its perspective of what was really being honored at the Yasukuni Shrine:
“At present, 14 Class-A war criminals and over 1,000 Class-B and Class-C war criminals of WWII are worshiped in the Yasukuni Shrine. In the Shrine compound, there is a stone stupa where such atrocities as Japan’s occupation of Taiwan in 1895 and the September 18th Incident perpetrated by the invading Japanese troops in Northeast China in 1931 are engraved and depicted as the glorious achievements of the militarist Japanese troops. Also located in the Yasukuni Shrine is the Yushukan Museum which blatantly whitewashes the war of aggression and advocates Japan’s erroneous view of history.”
China’s white paper provided a dramatic example of the disparity between fact and fiction that it believes exists with regard to the shrine and the exhibits displayed at the museum:
“Among the exhibits, there is a C56 steam locomotive used on the Burma-Thailand railway, which is claimed by the Museum to have brought ‘enormous economic benefits’ to Southeast Asian countries. But in fact, the railway, known as the ‘Death Railway’, was built at the cost of the lives of 13,000 prisoners of war of the Allied Forces and 90,000 laborers from Myanmar, Malaysia and other countries.”
South Korea also harshly condemned the Japanese prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as a “deplorable and anachronistic act.” The South Korean government declared in a statement that “Mr Abe’s visit to the shrine reveals his wrong understanding of history.”
In a Note to Correspondents regarding the shrine visit issued by the Spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is South Korean, the spokesperson stated that it was “highly regrettable that tensions from the past are still plaguing the region” and that it was important “to be sensitive to the feelings of others, especially memory of victims.”
Responding to criticisms of the shrine visit, Japan’s UN Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa said in a statement that Prime Minister Abe’s purpose was “to pay his respects and pray for the souls of the war dead and renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war. It was nothing more and nothing less.”
However, some observers have put Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the military shrine into the larger context of his recent initiatives to strengthen Japan’s military, including his discussing the possibility of amending Japan’s pacifist post-World War II constitution under which its military is currently limited to self-defense.
Whatever Prime Minister Abe’s true motivations for his visit to the shrine, his spin on the controversy created by his visit was to say that he meant no harm: “Regrettably, it is a reality that the visit to Yasukuni Shrine has become a political and diplomatic issue. It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people.”
Unfortunately, his provocative visit stirred up the feelings of hurt engendered by fascist Japan’s past aggression against its Asian neighbors and the United States. Prime Minister Abe should have followed German Chancellor Merkel’s lead and chosen to honor the victims of its past aggression, not its perpetrators.
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