Prime Minister Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine
Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, Germany is a fully fledged player in Europe and the world. Its Nazi past is not forgotten, but is no longer an issue. By contrast, Japan is a marginal player in Asia and nearly invisible on the world stage beyond its quality automobiles and electronic goods, and its militaristic past, let alone its inability to seriously confront its crimes against humanity during the war, remains very much an issue. For this reason alone, any effort on the part of the Tokyo government to move away from Japan's postwar pacifism should be greeted with concern.
And concerned we should be about the recommendation of an advisory panel appointed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to junk Japan's war-renouncing Constitution and expand the role of its military, the Self-Defense Forces, which has been limited to protecting Japan's own territory and taking on minor roles in global peacekeeping missions.Abe's initiative ostensibly is to allow Japan to form military alliances with other democratic nations in addition to the U.S. and allow its forces to come to the aid of allied nations under attack; say, to shoot down a North Korean missile aimed at the U.S., when Japan itself is not at risk. This is something that its Constitution, which was drafted by U.S. occupation forces after the war, expressly forbids.
(Japan's no-nukes policy would remain unchanged. Public opposition to nuclearization of its military is overwhelming, although its governments have routinely looked the other way when U.S. ships and submarines with nuclear weapons have entered its ports.)
Abe's initiative comes at a time when powerful China has grown increasingly assertive while the pathetic Pyongyang regime remains reliably bellicose. Yet polls show broad opposition in Japan to Abe's initiative because of a fear that the nationalistic prime minister would use the changes to dismantle the Constitution and its unambiguous rejection of war.Abe calls the doctrine underlying the proposed changes "proactive pacifism" and asserts that a stronger military would help ensure peace.
"By increasing our deterrence, our country will be able to avoid becoming caught up in war," he says.
* * * * *There is no more controversial symbol of Japan's militaristic past than Yasukuni Shrine.
Over 1,000 convicted Japanese war criminals, including 14 so-called Class A war criminals who were executed after trial -- the civilian leaders, generals and admirals most responsible for the systematic massacre of tens of millions of civilians, use of rape and chemical and biological warfare, and brutalities against POWs -- are enshrined in the magnificent Shinto shrine in Tokyo's Chiyoda ward.
The shrine includes a museum that seeks to justify Japan's invasions of its neighbors.Prime Minister Abe, like some of his more recent predecessors, has made it a point to visit Yasakuni although these visits are sure to cause offense in China, South Korea and other nations who suffered under the Japanese fist. His last visit was in December, although he sent "ritual offerings" to the shrine last month just before President Obama's three-day visit, a seemingly in-your-face gesture that "disappointed" the U.S. State Department and bolstered the view that Abe is an historical revisionist who believes the convictions of Japan's wartime leaders were merely "victors' justice."
* * * * *I have more than a passing acquaintance with Japan. With Tokyo as my base, I traveled the country in the early 1970s. I made many friends and became deeply enamored of Japanese architecture, art, drama and cuisine, as well as their love of American jazz.
But I also came to understand that the Japanese are literally and figuratively insular and xenophobia is a national trait. They also are deeply racist. These traits go a long way toward explaining why Japan rose from the ashes of World War II to become an economic colossus but has not been able to shake off its imperialist past and become a major player on the global political stage.
Although it is long past time for Japan to grow its own military capability and play a larger security role, although not to the extent that Abe now advocates, the Japanese themselves recognize that there is something in their national character that has prevented them from accepting and taking responsibility for their past. And that the prospect of a militarist future is deeply worrisome.
Japanese textbooks still paper over the country's barbarous wartime conduct. Pearl Harbor notwithstanding, many Japanese believe that their country was not the aggressor and atrocities like the Rape of Nangking never happened. According to opinion polls, about a third of all Japanese rationalize the visits of prime ministers to Yasukuni to save face because of condemnations from China and South Korea. Ah, yes, saving face.
These sentiments make the prospect of a remilitarized Japan a frightening prospect to Japanese who believe that despite the outward appearance of a sophisticated society moving with alacrity into the 21st century, a middle course between pacifism and militarism is not possible. I have to agree.
* * * * *Japan is at a crossroads. Its population is aging and its birth rate continues to drop. There will literally not be enough people to run Japan's factories and institutions in a few decades, while its immigration policies make it extremely difficult for non-Japanese to become citizens, let alone enter the workforce.
I moonlighted at a newspaper in Tokyo where my boss was a talented man whose father was Japanese and mother Chinese. Although he was easily the brightest star in the newsroom, because of his mixed parentage he had no chance of being promoted above the lower middle-management position he had held for years and would have until he retired. As a gaijin (foreigner), I stood no chance of getting a decent job, and still would have no chance today.
No, not all Japanese are racist xenophobes. My friends certainly weren't, and as painful as the subject was, they acknowledged the truth about Japan and World War II and its inability to come to terms with its past. Some had spent time in Europe and the U.S. and several attended American universities. Coming home, shaking off the Western ways that had loved and accepting their parents' wishes that they accept the old ways was painful to watch.
My landlady, Mrs. Mioshi, was one of the first Japanese women to attend Oxford University in England. We became good friends, and one evening after farewell dinner with she and her husband in their upstairs apartment, she said that she wanted to show me something before I flew home.
She explained that she had brought back a lovely Wedgewood china dinner service from England before the war and had buried it deep in the back yard of their Tokyo home early in 1945 when the U.S. advance up the Pacific enabled its B-29 bombers to reach Tokyo.
The Mioshis lived out the closing months of the war with relatives in the country. They returned after the surrender to find Roppongi, their neighborhood, decimated from firebombings.
Mrs. Mioshi told this story as she opened the doors to a cupboard and pulled out a dinner plate.
"It was a lovely ivory white," she explained as she handed the plate to me. "But you can see what the intense heat of the firebombings did."
Indeed. The plate had turned an otherwordly cobalt blue, as had the rest of the dinner service.
"I forgive the Americans for what they had to do," Mrs. Mioshi said in her tiny voice. Japanese often look down when they address gaijin, but she looked me right in the eye.
"It is just that we will never be able to confront our past, let alone forgive ourselves for it."