Did Japanese lawmakers intend to provoke Obama by honoring war criminals?


Japanese lawmakers follow a Shinto priest (R) during a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine to honor the war dead at the shrine's spring festival in Tokyo on April 22, 2014.



Years after the Obama administration announced a “deliberate and strategic decision” to pivot to Asia, the US president is trying to revive the foreign policy initiative with a trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

As President Barack Obama headed to his first stop — Japan — reports emerged that nearly 150 Japanese lawmakers had visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine on Tuesday, a move that could potentially raise tensions with neighbors China and South Korea. 

The shrine honors those who gave their lives fighting for Japan. But more controversially, it also enshrines several war criminals executed found guilty of “crimes against peace” in the Tokyo trials following World War II.

China and South Korea see Yasukuni as a sign of Japan’s unwillingness to repent for its aggressive actions during the war.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sparked outrage in South Korea and China when he visited the shrine last December, sent a ritual offering to the shrine on Monday.

China criticized Abe’s move and said offerings and visits “reflect the erroneous attitude toward history adopted” by Japan’s cabinet.

Japanese lawmakers also visited this week, prompting South Korea’s foreign ministry to deplore visits to a “place that enshrined war crimes that caused a war and destroyed peace.”

Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said, “I think it is such an empty gesture to talk about the future with neighboring countries while paying respects to such a place.”

GlobalPost spoke to Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and Thomas Berger, assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, about the significance of the visits, Japan’s handling of its wartime history, and the impact of the shrine visits on Obama’s trip. The interview has been condensed and edited by GlobalPost.

Was Japan trying to send some sort of message to its neighbors ahead of Obama's visit? To the US?

Lee: No, I think this is a coincidence, and it’s an unfortunate coincidence. We know there are certain times of the year when this controversial shrine draws a lot of high profile politicians and government officials. This — the so-called spring festival — is one of those times. Another such time is August 15, which is known in the United States as Victory over Japan Day — the day in 1945 when Japan announced its surrender. Japanese officials are prone to visit on August 15. And there’s the autumn festival.

I really think it would have happened whether President Obama was to visit Japan or not. The fact that it happened on the eve of Obama’s arrival in Japan is unfortunate because it sends the wrong message to primarily Japan’s ally South Korea, which has deep historical issues with Japan. It also becomes fodder for China, South Korea and North Korea. It gives them material for trying to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States.

Berger: The main reason for these visits to the shrine was because of the timing of the annual spring festival. Conservative lawmakers often visit the shrine on this date, although this year's contingent is unusually large, reflecting the large number of conservative lawmakers in the current Diet and heightened awareness of the issue.

When asked, prominent visitors such as Interior Minister [Yoshitaka] Shindo have said that this trip should be considered as an entirely separate matter from Obama's visit and is not meant as a message. However, this stance that historical issues are a domestic matter and separate from foreign policy is itself a political statement with foreign policy implications. In that sense, it is very much a signal. Much like the Japanese insistence that there is no dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it may seem plausible at first, but ultimately is a polite fiction at best.

Have Japanese lawmakers always visited the shrine? Or has Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's leadership set a new example?

Lee: Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine was the first by an incumbent prime minister since 2006. Right before he left office, Abe’s predecessor [Junichiro] Koizumi visited the shrine much to the chagrin of South Koreans and Chinese. Abe’s visit in December 2013 was meaningful in that it drew severe criticism from South Korea and China, and as unusual as it was, from the United States.

It’s one thing for politicians, Diet members, and even prominent government officials to visit, but it’s quite another for the head of state to visit. I don’t see any correlation between Abe’s visit and a drastic increase in the number of Japanese government officials visiting Yasukuni shrine. There have always been politicians who have visited in a personal capacity.

Abe drew a line this time. He knew that for him to go visit the shrine would really be a serious issue for the US, as well as South Korea and China. [Abe sent an offering to the shrine instead.] Fundamentally, the issue is not going to break the US-Japan alliance.

Berger: Japanese lawmakers have always visited the shrine, but shrine visits have become controversial inside Japan since 1978, when the shrine authorities inscribed the names of 14 Class A war criminals in the rolls of the honored war dead. Since that time, the Japanese emperor has never visited the shrine — a move that is widely interpreted as a tacit rebuke of the shrine's stance on the issue.

Abe has long been one of the shrine's biggest supporters, and this year he sent a traditional offering in the form of a decorative tree. The prime minister's stance has undoubtedly encouraged many more lawmakers than usual to visit the shrine.

Earlier this month, Abe denied that Yasukuni could be replaced as the nation's primary war memorial. Does his comparison of Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery hold water?

Lee: In my view no, and the reason is the following: I actually had a chance to visit [Yasukuni] last December, right before Abe’s visit. I saw firsthand many aspects of the shrine and the entire complex that are very problematic. We know that Yasukuni has enshrined 14 so-called Class A war criminals, and that’s deservedly what gets the most press coverage.

But just sixty yards from the main alter is a war museum that is problematic. At the front of the entrance is a statue of a WWII Japanese soldier. Then, as soon as you walk in there’s a captivating display of the Zero fighter [Mitsubishi A6M Zero] — a war plane that was iconic during WWII for its maneuverability and so forth, and was used during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When you go through the rooms, there are illustrations and narration with respect to Pearl Harbor that explicitly say that Japan had to go to war because the US was about to strike Japan. The underlying message is that it was a war of justice, and the Allies were simply superior and Japan was served a victor's justice.

And that message is quite overt, quite explicit all through the museum. There’s a lot of propaganda that falls short of Japan’s status as a major nation of the world. It’s kind of embarrassing for Japan, I would say.

Berger: Every country has the right to honor its war dead, and that includes Japan. Unlike Arlington, which is run by the national government, Yasukuni is a private religious organization, albeit one with a history of close ties to the state. It is also one that espouses a view of history that is profoundly at odds with Japan's friends and neighbors, including not only China, but also South Korea and even the United States. As a result, visits to the shrine have political and diplomatic implications that a visit to Arlington does not.

It raises issues of the separation of church and state, and it provokes powerful reactions in Japan's neighbors, who fear that it harbors a return to a more assertive and even aggressive Japanese foreign policy. The United States government and most US analysts think that such fears are overblown — but increasingly Washington has also expressed dismay over Japan's willingness to heighten tensions through its stance on the past.

South Korea and China both charge that the visits to the shrine show Japan's lack of remorse for its atrocities committed during WWII. Has Japan ever confronted and dealt its wartime past like Germany did?

Lee: In no way comparable to the way Germany has. As you know in Germany, if you deny the Holocaust, you can go to jail. In Japan, very few educated Japanese really have detailed knowledge of Imperial Japan’s cruelties, atrocities, massacring civilians and operating a military brothel — these salient parts of Japanese national history.

In middle schools, in high schools, one often hears with great sincerity from Japanese people that we simply don’t have time to cover the 20th century because Japan has such a long history. History education in middle and high school stops around the first decade or so of the 20th century, which is an absurd proposition frankly. The fact that Japanese people are not taught the fundamentals of Japan's actions in China, Korea and Southeast Asia in the 1930s and 40s speaks to the glaring hole in Japan’s history education.

Japan’s prime minister has apologized in the past for Japan’s aggressive actions during the war, for the so-called “comfort women” — even that phrase is a gross euphemism for institutionalized sexual slavery. The problem as viewed in South Korea, China, and even the US, is that Japanese politicians like Mr. Abe — before he became prime minister again in 2012 — said things that seemed to negate previous apologies made by former heads of state.

Berger: There is far less censorship of the unsavory sides of Japan's past than is commonly believed. Japan has been intensely debating issues such as the rape of Nanjing and the sexual exploitation of the Comfort women for decades. Over the past two decades, successive Japanese governments have repeatedly offered strong apologies for having waged a war of aggression in Asia and oppressing its neighbors. This is true of the Abe administration as well. Japan has not, however, changed its policies on commemorating the dead, and efforts to provide compensation to the victims of past abuses have been faltering at best. Moreover, many prominent Japanese politicians have criticized Japan for being too negative about its past — they call it a "self-flagellating" view of Japanese history, and in recent years these conservative voices have become more prominent.

Critical in this development, however, has been the lack of support in neighboring countries for Japan's tentative efforts to pursue reconciliation over historical issues. Some of the fault for this lies with Tokyo, but some also lies with Seoul and Beijing. For instance, when Japan created a fund to compensate former comfort women, the Korean government provided no support at all, and ultimately turned critical of the project because of pressure from Korean NGOs. Likewise, China propagates a shockingly savage view of Japan through its school books, museums and media. As a result, many Japanese officials and the general public suffer from what is called "apology fatigue" — a sense that no matter how much it apologizes, Japan's neighbors will never forgive it.

Would you say the majority of the Japanese public agrees or disagrees with the visits?

Lee: I would say the majority is apathetic and inclined to disapprove of it. That’s my understanding of Japanese public opinion speaking with many Japanese over the years. They don’t really understand the impact it has outside Japan. There’s no great political capital to be won by making the visit. And yet Japanese politicians do. They might win the support of some on the far right, but that’s a miniscule political dividend that comes at a great cost to Japan’s national image and also to US strategic interests.

South Korea becomes enraged, and South Korean politicians also manipulate such visits for political gain. Fanning the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea usually boosts your ratings, no matter who you are, no matter who’s in power. That leaves the US rather flustered, because it needs both Japan and South Korea as allies to meet the challenge of China's power and North Korea's provocations.

Berger: The Japanese public has a complex view on the issue. In surveys, if asked whether China and Korea have the right to protest such visits, or whether it is appropriate for the prime minister to pay his respects to the war dead there, majorities or clear pluralities will say yes. When asked if the prime minister should consider the feelings of neighboring countries when deciding to visit or not, however, similar numbers again say yes.

In the end, the Japanese public would like the issue to go away, and if a prime minister found a way of solving the issue — for instance by getting the shrine to de-inscribe the 14 Class A war criminals, or finding an alternative national site for commemoration, it is likely that they would support it. Unfortunately, at this point in time there is no such solution on offer.

How do you think this would impact Obama’s visit, if at all?

Lee: I’m sure it put a slight grimace on Obama’s face. Obama is not going to make a public case out of this while he’s on a state visit. Japan is one of the most important allies of the United States. The US-Japan alliance is second only to NATO, I would say. It’s one of the most important, if not the most important, bilateral relationships in the world. The two leaders will smile a lot and will not make a public issue out of this. Obama knows that this is a thorny issue that will not bring any benefit for the United States.