Japan’s leaders are still stubbornly refusing to admit their war crimes
Opinion: German honesty about and repentance for its actions prepared the way for European peace
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister: visited the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26th last. Photograph: Bloomberg
The Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals and over 1,000 Class B and Class C war criminals (defined as those who committed “crimes against peace” and “atrocities against humanity”) convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East are enshrined, was a spiritual instrument and symbol of Japanese militarism in Japan’s wars of aggression and colonial rule in the second World War.
On December 26th, 2013, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine, which once again besmirched the memories of Asian peoples who suffered unspeakable losses and miseries from Japan’s aggressive wars. Anyone with memories of the painful anti-fascist struggles or knowledge of modern European history would find it easy to understand their disappointment and indignation at Mr Abe’s flagrant act. If you don’t, just imagine how you’d feel about the sight of the incumbent German chancellor paying homage to Adolf Hitler, out of apathy and disrespect to those victimised by the Nazis during the second World War.
The German government and the German people deserve a great deal of respect for their attitude towards history. Over 43 years ago, on December 7th, 1970, Willy Brandt, then chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, knelt down in profound apology in front of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This impressive gesture boded well for a brand new chapter of German and European history, for Brandt’s kneeling down in penitence helped guide Germany out of the defendant’s seat.
Not only have successive German governments admitted Germany’s war crimes and sincerely apologised to Nazi victims; they have all made unequivocal denunciations of Nazism. Germany’s repentance and apologies were an essential contributing factor in genuine reconciliation in Europe, as well as the restoration of faith in peace and a shared future in the hearts of European peoples.
Almost 69 years has passed since the war ended in 1945, yet the Japanese government has never faced up squarely to Japan’s war-waging and misery-inflicting past, has never conducted conscientious introspection and earnest reflection; nor has it made an official apology. Instead, Japanese prime ministers and some other cabinet members have on numerous occasions paid visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honouring as “heroes” the culprits and commanders of Japan’s wars of aggression, who caused terrible suffering to millions of people in Asia.
A handful of extreme right-wing forces blatantly altered history coursebooks, seeking to depict the Japanese wars of aggression as the “liberation” of backward nations, and attempting to reinterpret bloody massacres as “a self-defensive holy war”. The Yasukuni Shrine, where militarism is advocated and war criminals are honoured, received 33 visits from eight Japanese prime ministers (out of 12) in the three decades after the end of the war (1945-1975), and 27 visits from Japanese prime ministers in the decade between 1975 and 1985, including six visits deliberately made on August 15th, to mark the date when Japan surrendered. In 1985, right-wing forces in Japan exerted even greater pressure, and prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone took the entire cabinet to pay official homage to the shrine. Since Mr Abe took office as prime minister, he has not only openly questioned whether Japan should be defined as an “aggressor”, he has also attempted to portray China as a threat; he even posed for a photo in a military jet marked with the provocative number 731 - the code of an infamous Japanese biological warfare research facility performing human experiments in China during the war. This time he visited the Yasukuni Shrine in disregard of international opposition, and, even more alarmingly, he has voiced his wish to amend the post-war pacifist constitution imposed on Japan by the United States.