Whatever declarations Japanese leaders may make about the aims of their visits to the Yasukuni Shrine being only to honour their war dead, the acid test is whether victims of their past aggression believe them.
THE recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine has provoked a very negative reaction in China and South Korea.
While less strident, other countries like the United States and Singapore also did not approve of the visit. The former expressed disappointment while the latter stated that it regretted the visit.
At the heart of the disapproval is the belief that such a visit indicates that Japan has not come to terms with its past of aggression in Asia. Many compare this unfavourably with Germany where it is very unlikely, if not inconceivable, that the highest German political leader will ever make a public visit to a shrine of Adolf Hitler or of any top Nazi leader.
How valid is this comparison?
It is first necessary to state that the issue is somewhat more complicated than a clear-cut case of an utterly unrepentant Japan and a completely contrite Germany. The Japanese public are deeply pacifist. While it is true that they have caused tremendous destruction in Asia, they themselves have been profoundly scarred by the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Moreover, there are many Japanese, particularly those in the teachers’ unions, progressive intellectuals – especially from the older generation – and others, who are unequivocal in their condemnation of their country’s record in the Second World War.
Germany, for its part, did experience some neo-Nazi manifestations, especially in the eastern part of Germany just after reunification. And there was the controversy over the visit of President Reagan to a cemetery in Pitburgh in 1985 where some of Hitler’s Waffen SS were buried.
Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor, despite protests from many Jewish personalities, insisted that Reagan together with Kohl himself, not cave in to the protests. The Germans argued that many German cemeteries have buried SS officers. Moreover, many of these SS men were innocent young men forced to join the SS at a young age.
Such aside, it is nevertheless clear that in the main, the Germans have come to terms with their recent history. They have clearly acknowledged they did wrong under Hitler and have vowed not to resurrect the Third Reich.
They have, in addition to giving substantial reparations to their victims, made many convincing gestures of contrition, one of the most dramatic being that of the then Chancellor, Willi Brandt, going down on one knee in a monument in Poland in 1970 honouring the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising during the Nazi era.
The Japanese on their part are much more ambivalent. Their apologies have been hedged about by many qualifications, and often when made by one leader refuted by statements and actions of other leaders.
And, more dramatically, some of their highest political leaders have visited, and intend to continue visiting, the Yasukuni Shrine where many class one war criminals have been enshrined.
Whatever the declarations the Japanese may make about the aims of their visits to Yasukuni being only to honour their war dead, the acid test is whether their war victims believe them. In this, the Chinese and Koreans do not. On the other hand, the victims of the Germans do.
The most dramatic recent example is the plea by the Polish foreign minister in 2011 to the Germans to take leadership of a federal Europe!
One can hardly expect a Chinese or Korean leader to ask for Japanese leadership in Asian affairs!
There are three reasons why both differ in their approach to their recent history. One consists of what they actually, or believe they actually, did.
Amidst the horrors of war the Germans unleashed, they went on an extermination of Jews and other groups which could not be justified by the exigencies of war or by any other wrongs that others may have been inflicted on the Germans. Such an extermination was a clear-cut case of genocide.
Many Japanese, on their part, argued that they committed no such genocide in Asia, and what atrocities Japanese soldiers committed were not a result of policy but of the stress of war. Moreover, in their colonial conquests, they were only following the examples of the Western colonial powers. In some places like South-East Asia, they helped their liberation movements.
While there is some degree of truth in the Japanese argument, some heinous crimes such as the human experimentation by their notorious Japanese Unit 731 and the testing of bacteriological warfare in parts of China cannot easily be justified as due to the strains of war.
While the Western comparison over colonial conquests may seem valid, it cuts no ice with those countries colonised, like Korea and China.
In fairness, some Japanese scholars acknowledge that whatever the Western example, they were wrong in colonising these two countries. Hopefully, such acknowledgement can be one basis for reconciliation between Japan and their Northeast Asian neighbours.
The second reason, somewhat related to the first, is the lack of a regional grouping the Japanese could identify with or be a member of. Germany had a regional organisation, the European community, they could, if not subordinate themselves to its regional aims, use as the focus of their attempt not to repeat their past.
In the words of one of the greatest 20th century German intellectuals, Thomas Mann, Germany should strive for a European Germany, not a German Europe. Asia is too diverse, culturally and economically, and still filled with bitter war memories, for Japan to identify with.
Third, the de-Nazification campaign in Germany was quite thorough. Few Germans, if any, with Nazi connections were allowed to occupy significant governmental and private posts in post-war Germany.
Japan was different. While in the initial stages, the Americans, who basically dominated Allied policy (there was more non-American input in running post-war Germany), intended to purge Japan of those involved in Japanese aggression in Asia, they subsequently relented by allowing many to assume positions of influence in a post-war Japan. (Abe’s maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi who was Prime Minister in the 1950s was one of them.)
The US needed an anti-communist, strong Japan against communism in Asia, especially China. It is thus difficult for post-war Japanese governments consisting of many who committed aggression in Asia and who could have influenced their successors to acknowledge they did wrong.
It would now seem that those inclined to the denial that Japan committed aggression are gaining momentum in Japan. It would be a sad day for Japan and for Asia that a Japan which had made a lot of headway in its peace diplomacy after the war would have that peaceful image destroyed by becoming clearly unrepentant about its past.
> Lee Poh Ping is Senior Research Fellow, Institute of China Studies at Universiti Malaya.