PM prevents Japan from burying war-time past


JAPAN: There is no easy solution to the Yasukuni shrine debate, writes Judith Crosbie

As you emerge from the bustling Kudanshita subway station, the grounds of Yasukuni shrine seem like an oasis of calm. The walk up to this controversial shrine in the political and economic heart of Tokyo is lined with tall trees and delicate cherry blossoms. Workers from offices in nearby skyscrapers wander around for a moment's tranquillity.

The first clue as to the purpose of the shrine in honouring Japan's war dead is a tall column bearing a statue of Omura Masujiro.

The explanation on the column describes how, as vice-minister of war in the late 19th century, Omura introduced western military tactics to Japan "and had the honour of designing the first western-style warship in Japan".

At the large ornate wooden shrine itself, the silence is broken by people clapping to awaken the gods. A few coins are tossed into the shrine and a quick prayer said with bowed head and clasped hands.

It is here that Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi is welcomed by priests on his annual visits since he took up office in 2001. Though he says he visits as a private citizen, he uses his title when he signs the register.

His visits have sparked protests from China and South Korea: among the almost 2.5 million war dead lie 14 "Class A" war criminals who were executed or died in prison as directors of Japan's role in the second World War.

Their presence is not apparent: their remains are not kept here but their names are included on the lists of war dead written on traditional paper and kept behind the shrine. Apart from the statue of Omura and the reliefs on the columns at the entrance to the shrine depicting battle scenes, Yasukuni shrine could be any Shinto place of worship.

However, tucked in to the right of the shrine is a museum that betrays a worrying mindset.

Amid the statues of smiling Kamikaze pilots in the Yushukan war memorial museum lies a very one-sided view of Japan's military campaign in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. The occupation of China is portrayed as a means of defending Japan. The "Nanking operation" of December 1937 is mentioned - but nowhere are the historical estimates that put the number of Chinese deaths in the operation at 300,000. We are told the Japanese general in charge told his men "to observe military rules to the letter and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished".

After the battle residents are said to have been able to "live their lives in peace". Following the attack on Wuhan "just as they had in Nanking, the Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians".

The Yushukan museum is not an official Japanese version of what happened in the Pacific war. It is operated along with the shrine by Shinto priests who oppose the findings of the 1946-48 international war tribunal, known as the Tokyo Tribunal, which passed judgment on the high-ranking government and military leaders of the war.

In the 1950s the health and welfare ministry ordered that all those who died in the line of duty would be enshrined in Yasukuni and their families awarded pensions. Officials at the shrine decided in 1978 that not to include the 14 Class A criminals would amount to an acceptance of the Tokyo Tribunal's findings. The shrine's website describes its view of the more controversial inclusions as "'Martyrs of Showa [ the term used for the wartime emperor Hirohito]' who were cruelly and unjustly tried as war criminals by a sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces".

The first outcry over visits to the shrine by politicians began in 1985 when then prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited. Koizumi's visits have been made even more controversial because of his reported pledge in 2001 to the association of families of war dead that he would visit it every year if they backed him as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. Japan's Asian neighbours are awaiting his visit this year with more trepidation than usual, given it is the 60th anniversary of the ending of the second World War.

Korea and China in particular say the visits to the shrine show a lack of remorse for Japan's wartime aggression. Indeed, on the day Koizumi made a public apology for the war at the Asia-African summit in Jakarta last April, 81 members of parliament, including a cabinet minister, visited the shrine.

But officials in Tokyo take a different view. While they agree it would be better if the visits did not take place, there is a feeling of double standards. US presidents visit Arlington cemetery where soldiers who fought in Vietnam are buried. In 1985 German chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Bitburg cemetery with Ronald Regan where a number of SS soldiers are buried.

Officials say Japan's wartime leaders should not be compared to Hitler's Nazis as there was no plan for genocide and no Holocaust carried out in Asia.

The soldiers of the Wehrmacht are not vilified in the same way as the SS and neither should Japan's war dead, they say. They point out that Japan has apologised enough for the war.

Since 1972, when prime minister Kakuei Tanaka told the Chinese that Japan "deeply reproached itself" for the war, there have been various apologies. "America has never apologised for the Vietnam War," said one Japanese diplomat.

In China there were violent protests in April over new school textbooks that are said to gloss over Japan's wartime atrocities. Japanese officials say this anger is stoked by a non-democratic government that has sought to replace communism with nationalism; Japan therefore will always be a figure of hatred no matter how many times it apologises.

Kenichi Asano, professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto, disagrees. "What 1930s Japan did is the same as what happened in Germany - the denial of human dignity and the denial of human rights. Hitler's army said Germany was the best in the world and in the same way the Japanese ideology was based on superiority to other Asian countries," he says.

"What Japan did to Koreans was especially bad. Japan was trying to ethnically cleanse the Koreans and they forced them to change their names and worship Shintoism . . . What Japan did in Nanking was very similar to a Holocaust."

As the debate over the Yasukuni shrine rages, it appears there is no easy solution.

The possibility of disinterring the 14 has been suggested but this is opposed by some families, including that of the wartime prime minister Gen Hideki Tojo, who still challenge the notion that Japan fought a war of aggression.

Shinto elements also say selective spirits can not be disinterred once the ceremony enshrining them takes place.

Earlier this month eight former premiers warned Koizumi against returning.

An opinion poll by Nippon Television Network showed 46 per cent opposed the visits while 40 per cent backed them.