China and Japan 68 Years after WWII

I wish I could say that I was clever enough to have planned yesterday’s post on the beginning of the Second World War in Asia to be published on the 68th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended that conflict, but…

Total coincidence. But I was reminded of the significance of August 15 in the histories of nations like Japan and China after seeing multiple articles on the controversy surrounding the Japanese commemoration of that event. I’m in the middle of a new series on how WWII has been memorialized in this country, but whatever criticisms I’ll have of those memorials, none has sparked the kind of international furor regularly inspired by Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, believed by adherents of Shinto to be home to the souls of soldiers and civilians who have died for Japan in wars fought since the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Yasukuni Shrine
Yasukuni Shrine – Creative Commons (Wiiii)

Among the 2.5 million names enshrined are more than a thousand convicted of war crimes after WWII, fourteen of which were considered “Class A” war criminals. (The shrine has a monument to Radha Binod Pal, the Indian jurist who registered a famous dissent against the findings of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.) Six of these were hanged, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister of Japan from 1941 to 1944 after having earlier led some Japanese units in the 1937 invasion of China that I blogged about yesterday. The “China incident” is barely covered by the historical museum within Yasukuni, which the BBC reports “continues to peddle a version of World War II history that either ignores or denies the crimes committed by Japan in Korea and China,” such as the rape of Nanjing and the exploitation of “comfort women.”

Yasukuni “glorifies the history of imperialistic invasion” said a spokesperson for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, who called it “deplorable” that Japanese politicians extended a tradition of visiting the shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945. The tradition “seriously harms the feelings of the people in China,” protested that country’s foreign ministry.

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe – Wikimedia

Calling the shrine “ground zero in Asia’s vexing debate about decades-old history,” Chico Harlan of the Washington Post analyzed Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to send a ritual offering through an aide rather than visit the shrine personally:

Leaders in China and South Korea believe Japan has never made proper amends for invading and occupying their territories in the run-up to World War II. Conservatives in Japan, Abe among them, tend to view that era as a high point of Japanese glory and ambition — all while rationalizing the army’s systematic use of sex slaves.

How Abe addresses Japan’s history, analysts say, will largely define relations with China and South Korea in coming years. On Thursday, the 68th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, Abe appeared to search for a narrow middle ground, trying to demonstrate his personal support for the shrine without causing diplomatic damage.

Abe has spoken admiringly of Yasukuni many times, and he visited it in October, two months before his election as prime minister. But a return to the shrine as Japan’s leader would have sparked anger not just from Seoul and Beijing but also from Washington, which is pressing Abe to help reduce regional tensions.

This past April South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se canceled a visit to Tokyo after four ministers in Abe’s cabinet visited Yasukuni. Asked about the cancellation at press briefings on April 22 and 23, a U.S. State Department spokesman declined to comment specifically, simply reiterating that “we encourage those two allies to work through their issues and have a good dialogue and a good relationship.”

Kamikaze memorial at Yasukuni Shrine
Memorial at the shrine to kamikaze pilots from WWII – Creative Commons (Takashi Ueki)

Earlier this week one of my graduate advisers, Paul Kennedy, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he addressed one of his favorite topics: the state of Great Power relations. While he included Japan (“still bewildered by the outside world, cramped by its past”) with China and the United States in that illustrious group, Paul was mostly convinced that “none of them are troublemakers; nor are they, in any really significant sense, a source of trouble” — at least, not compared to the North Koreas and Syrias of the world. “If there are neurotic Kaiser Wilhelms or bullying Mussolinis or murderous Stalins around today, they are not — thank heavens — to be found in Beijing, Moscow or New Delhi.” Or Tokyo, presumably.

With all that is happening in the Middle East at the moment, it’s hard to spare too much anxiety for East Asia. Perhaps we should simply hope that if Paul is right that “the Great Powers, while sometimes complaining about one another’s actions, generally act in a restrained manner, then perhaps we may look forward to a long period without a major war, rather like the unprecedented peace among the Great Powers that existed after 1815 under the Concert of Europe.” But history like the kind shared by Japan, China, and South Korea has a tendency to test the “self-restraint” that maintains such a peace.

If the Great Powers are unwilling to pay the “price” of self-restraint, Paul warned, “then another 1914-like crisis could occur.” As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, let’s hope that the memory of the Second doesn’t provoke “some damn foolish thing” in the East China Sea.

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