As expected, both China and South Korea reacted furiously to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013. Diplomatic relations between Japan and these countries, which had already been strained, worsened further with no hope in sight of improvement. This time, however, Taiwan, Russia, the EU and the United States joined these neighboring countries in expressing their dismay at his insensitivities to the feelings of the peoples of Asia.
Abe and his advisors seemed flustered by this negative reaction from Washington. The US government had never officially expressed its view on this issue when Juninchiro Koizumi or some of the earlier PMs paid visits to the shrine in the past, each time triggering the anger of neighboring countries. According to a press report, Abe decided against V.P. Biden’s advice to not visit given during their telephone conversation earlier that month. Abe went ahead anyway and acted according to his own conviction. That was why Washington expressed its anger contained in the word “disappointment”, especially when it is trying to bring all the countries into cooperation to effectively cope with the common threat posed by North Korea. According to reports, Foreign Minister Kishida immediately contacted Ms. Caroline Kennedy, the new US Ambassador to Tokyo, explaining Abe’s position, but the latter responded coolly and said that she would simply convey his message to Washington.
In response to all the negative reactions reported, Abe released a statement that he had had no intention of hurting the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people. But he knew perfectly well how those countries would react, which was why he did not visit the shrine during his first tenure as PM back in 2006-07. He defended his visit, asserting that he had prayed the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves for the nation rest in peace, and vowed that never again would people suffer miseries of war. He also stressed that such a gesture was common for all national leaders and that he would continue to make efforts so that the people of other countries could understand his position.
The Chinese and Korean peoples who suffered at the hands of the Japanese military might understand the PM of Japan praying for the souls of all those who sacrificed themselves in the war, including Japanese foot soldiers who committed atrocities at the order of their superiors. Hundreds of thousands of such soldiers were civilians forced into fighting by Japan’s reckless military policies of that period, and were also themselves victims who suffered immensely.
The serious problem, however, of Abe or of some of the earlier PMs visiting the Yasukuni shrine is that so-called “A-class war criminals”, or those who were responsible for the Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific, have been enshrined along with the ordinary soldiers since 1978. Although Abe says he has no intention of hurting the feelings of those in neighboring countries, his words sound empty and insincere, even for a Japanese citizen like myself. Just imagine the German government engraving the names of Hitler and his close associates on war memorials commemorating those who died in the previous war! How would the people in Europe feel about that even if the government has sought and maintained peaceful relations with its neighbors since 1945? The difference between the German and Japanese governments regarding their reflections on and apology for WWII is that the former has maintained a firm position, while the latter keeps vacillating, depending on who heads the government. I am afraid that no matter how hard Abe tries, decent leaders in other countries will not show understanding toward his position. The sooner he realizes this, the better; swift action would minimize the damage already done to Japan’s national interests in the diplomatic world.
Abe and his supporters claim that the so-called “A-class war criminals” were judged based on trials conducted by the winners of the war. That was to be expected, as Japan surrendered unconditionally, but if they seriously doubted the outcome of the trials, why didn’t Japan ever officially conduct its own review and thorough investigation of what had gone wrong and who had been responsible for recklessly leading the country to war and the verge of annihilation? This should have been done when Japan regained its independence with the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952.
It has already been 69 years since Japan’s defeat in the last war, and if Abe is serious about our country never again engaging in war or subjecting people to those same miseries, he can propose for Japan to, at last, officially conduct comprehensive reviews relating to WWII. The outcome would surely help Japan to maintain peace with its neighbors and the world. It is not too late.