[The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily represent the view of the editors.]
In the past four decades since the recovery of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, one issue has constantly haunted the two nations’ relationship: The Yasukuni Shrine controversy. When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited China in 2001, he expressed “heartfelt apology and condolences for those Chinese people who were the victims of aggression.” This apology, which explicitly mentions the words “China” and “apology,” still falls short of the written apology that China demands. But China’s government also condemned these words as insincere because of Koizumi’s continued visits to Yasukuni.
Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo; Shintoism is the traditional belief system in Japan, one that views the islands of Japan as land created by gods, and the Japanese Emperor as the direct descendent of god. Yasukuni Shrine commemorates those who died while serving Japan as “kami,” or gods. Fourteen Class-A war criminals, along with over 1,000 Class B and C war criminals, are enshrined there.
Many Chinese citizens compare Japan to Nazi Germany when discussing the Yasukuni Shrine controversy. “Imagine [if] Angela Merkel publicly worshiped Adolf Hitler?” Web user @vrts800 commented once on the Yale Daily News in response to an article criticizing anti-Japan riots. “That is exactly what the Japanese are doing. Japanese politicians worship class-A war criminals with impunity.”
Toward a possible solution
Those enshrined at Yasukuni, however, are not limited to military personnel. Civilians who died during the war, including those killed during the Battle of Okinawa, are honored there as well.
This presents a thorny question. If a Japanese leader wishes to honor only the civilians at Yasukuni, they must also perforce pay respects to the criminals enshrined there; there is, at the moment, no mechanism for selective worship. (This is, however, not to claim that all Japanese leaders visit the shrine with the sole intention of honoring the civilians.) Would removing the spirits of the fourteen Class-A war criminals from Yasukuni Shrine or transferring them to a different site resolve the issue? No less than a senior member of Japan’s center-right Liberal Democratic Party suggested to do just this in 2005.
At first glance, a transfer or removal seems sensible. But it poses the question: Who will remove or transfer the spirits of the war criminals? Some Shinto priests argue that because this solution is a diplomatic one, it would be the Japanese state that removes or transfers the spirits. But doing so would likely violate Article 20 of the Japanese Constitution, which both guarantees individual freedom of religion and forbids “the State and its organs” from engaging in “any … religious activity.” Other Shinto priests oppose this proposal for doctrinal reasons, claiming that enshrined kamis are impossible to “remove.”
Even if no one opposed the proposal, however, simply removing or transferring the kamis of the war criminals is but a temporary, surface-level solution. The Yasukuni Shrine controversy, like all other issues between China and Japan, is too complex to be solved in one fell swoop.
The battleground of memory
When discussing Japanese wartime aggression, the Chinese tend to characterize the Japanese soldiers as heartless, relentless devils, while the Japanese tend to glorify them as heroes who willingly sacrificed their lives for the nation. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese view them as human beings.
The surviving Japanese soldiers’ testimonies, however, suggest otherwise. In Risa Morimoto’s documentary Wings of Defeat, which recounts World War II from the perspective of surviving kamikaze pilots, one former pilot states, “As I flew over the burnt cities, I thought to myself, Japan had already lost—the suicide missions were meaningless.” Another pilot confesses, upon being told he was to fly his mission he thought to himself, “Oh, I’m screwed.” “I wanted to live; I didn’t want to die,” he later added.
If they had such misgivings, why did the pilots volunteer to undertake the kamikaze mission? “They were made to rejoice in their own death. It was the exploitation of their youthful idealism that made it such a wicked enterprise,” Ian Buruma, an expert on 20th century Japan, explains in his book The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and in Japan. Through propaganda, the state equated self-sacrifice to glory, honor, and duty; dazzled by the rhetoric of glory, many Japanese people marched into the battlefield, which eventually turned self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation into a social norm.
This glorification of self-sacrifice by the state continues to this day. Yushukan, the history museum operated by the Yasukuni Shrine, depicts Japan as the liberator of Asia, and kamikaze pilots as selfless heroes who willingly died for the nation. The museum simply does not mention Imperial Japan’s World War II-era atrocities or the propaganda and social pressure that drove many people to death.
Getting to the heart of the matter
This distorted view of history propagated by Yushukan–not the composition of the enshrined—is the true core of the Yasukuni Shrine controversy. Because the Yasukuni Shrine operates the museum, Japanese prime ministers visiting the shrine suggest in turn a “worshipping” of the museum’s deeply flawed historical narrative.
Should Japanese prime ministers, then, stop visiting the shrine, as the Chinese demand?
If Japanese prime ministers were to simply stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine, this would be another act of historical obliteration. But historical obliteration is not a sufficient solution to the Yasukuni Shrine controversy; only through facing history, and rectifying our understanding of history through introspection and dialogue, can we move forward.