Past 'Is Not Past' as Japan Faces Test to Chart Course in Asia
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)
Ties with China and South Korea seen emerging as major issue in LDP race to choose party president - and next prime minister
However irritating, and even exasperating, the determinedly offensive attitudes of China and South Korea over the Yasukuni Shrine issue are a bitter reminder to Japanese that - 61 years after the end of World War II - they have yet to come to terms with their past. For good or bad, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should be credited for bringing this point home by adamantly refusing to cease his annual visits to the shrine, which houses the souls of the war dead as well as convicted war criminals.
Chinese and Koreans denounce Koizumi's visits to the shrine as tantamount to Japan's acquiescence to the atrocities it committed during the war years. And many Japanese are fed up with the unending Chinese and Korean demands for Japan to "face history." They are irritated because they think they have repented for the war by abiding to the letter of the peace constitution.
The war-renouncing document has been the fundamental basis of life as a nation in the post-war years, which began with surrender and a clean break from the past. The Emperor and prime ministers have made official apologies to Asian peoples in subsequent years.
"Look at the way we have lived before you criticize us," is the general feeling of the Japanese.
They are right. But they have chosen to leave their position on one critical issue ambiguous - the Tokyo Trials (the International Military Tribunal for the Far East) in 1946-1948. The tribunal has been criticized by many Japanese and a couple of the tribunal's judges as unjustifiable for being one-sided in favor of the victors and legally flawed in the way it was organized. But Japan accepted the outcome as a condition for its reentry into the world community under circumstances that left no other choice. The tribunal sentenced seven so-called Class-A war criminals, mostly former military leaders, to death and 18 others to jail terms.
The ghosts of these executed war criminals made their appearance to potentially complicate Japan's relations with China and Korea in 1977 when Yasukuni Shrine accepted their souls for repose alongside the 2.5 million Japanese war dead - supposedly victims of the militarism of which the war criminals were found guilty. Subsequently, because of the political implications, the Emperor ceased visiting the shrine, and most prime ministers refrained from doing so.
Prime Minister Koizumi, however, has stood out by never budging over his shrine visits, even at the cost of badly deteriorating relations with China and South Korea. Chinese and South Koreans are particularly angry about this. They feel offended by what can be construed as the Japanese leader paying respect to former military leaders responsible for war time atrocities.
What is on Koizumi's mind is mystery; he is known for being short on explanations on many key issues. This has left the impression on some that he even might be enjoying provoking the Chinese and South Koreans, which in turn energizes Japanese nationalism.
While nationalism may be the Japanese response to the anger of their neighbors, at the end of the day Koizumi has tested the Japanese mind on the war criminals, the Tokyo Trials, the war itself and on the people's own history. Is it too much to say that Koizumi, with the cooperation of the Chinese and Koreans, has called on the Japanese to think hard again about who should be responsible for the war and how Japanese should relate to history so that they can look into the future with confidence? In this sense, Koizumi's stubbornness may have been worthwhile.
At the heart of the issue is the Japanese view of themselves as a people who have neglected to focus their minds on who were responsible for the war. It is easy to be tempted to brush aside the Chinese and Korean protests as an annoying interference with domestic affairs, or question the fairness of the Tokyo Trials. But then the ultimate challenge for the Japanese is to pass judgment on their own history. A columnist at the Mainichi Shimbun, a major national newspaper, wondered recently whether in fact most Japanese have squarely faced up to war and admitted who was responsible - or if they have simply scapegoated the Class-A war criminals?
Some argue that it is too late now - six decades after the end of the war and the military tribunal. But it is not too late in that Japanese need to regain confidence in their capabilities to be masters of their own history and future.
So it is no wonder that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a controversial but popular nationalist who has long been highly critical of the Tokyo Trials and China's perceived intervention over the Yasukuni issue, is calling on Japanese to think again whether only criticizing the Tokyo Trials would do.
It is also no wonder that the liberal-leaning Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is to the right of the Asahi, the two largest national newspapers, each with millions of copies in daily circulation, have agreed on this point. Both have run a series of special features on the Tokyo Trials recently in response to the Yasukuni controversy.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to try to undo the Tokyo Trials. But it is at least necessary for Japanese to rid themselves of the evasiveness that cites foreign intervention or coercion as an excuse. They must graduate from that.
In the emerging race for succession to Koizumi as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and thus as the prime minister, the relationship with China and Korea, and with Asia as a whole, is going to be the primary issue. It will be a test for Japan in charting its course forward and positioning itself in the region.
As the American author William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
This applies to any country, but in particular to Japan this summer.
(Originally appeared in the May 29, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)