Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to justify his attitude on the issue of Yasukuni Shrine by likening it to the Arlington National Cemetery of the United States.
When interviewed by the Foreign Affairs quarterly on May 16, Abe urged Americans to “think about your own place to pay homage to the war dead” at Arlington National Cemetery. He said Japanese could “make a similar argument about Yasukuni, which enshrines the souls of those who lost their lives in the service of their country.” He argued that US presidents visit the Arlington cemetery regularly and he had also “visited as Japan’s prime minister.” He quoted Professor Kevin Doak of Georgetown University as saying that “visiting the cemetery does not mean endorsing slavery, even though Confederate soldiers are buried there.”
He went on to say that “I think it’s quite natural for a Japanese leader to offer prayer for those who sacrificed their lives for their country, and I think this is no different from what other world leaders do.”
However, this argument is futile, for the Arlington National Cemetery is totally different in nature from the Yasukuni Shrine.
First, the Arlington cemetery was built to bury all soldiers who died in the American Civil War in an attempt to remedy the rift between the North and South. But Tokyo Shokonsha, the precursor of Yasukuni Shrine, was established to honor the officers who died fighting for the emperor in the Meiji Civil War with no place left for any of the 6,000 rebel soldiers who were killed in the war. This fact proves that the Japanese Shinto exercises strict political discrimination.
Second, the main body of the Arlington cemetery consists of the Tomb of Unknowns and individual monuments. There is no altar for the so-called “spirits of martyrs” as is seen in the Japanese shrine. The Tokyo Shokonsha was renamed Yasukuni Shrine in 1879 not as a cemetery but as a memorial hall for the Imperial Army soldiers who died in wars, especially Japan’s aggressive wars against other countries. This holy place of “State Shinto” served as a spiritual prop for Japanese militarism. After the spirit tablets of 14 Class A war criminals were moved to the Yasukuni Shrine in 1978, any visit by Japanese state leaders would be regarded as hurting the feelings of the countries victimized by the Japanese aggression in World War II. Therefore, the Japanese emperor and prime ministers, except Junichiro Koizumi, have no longer visited the shrine since then. Now, Abe seems to be following in Koizumi’s footsteps.
Third, there is not any foreign diplomatic trouble with the Arlington National Cemetery and neither is there a ghastly atmosphere of militarism and religion inside it. At the end of World War II, the US occupation authorities forbade Japanese officials from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and even planned to burn it. Then the shrine survived by renouncing it status of state institution and becoming a non-governmental religious facility. However, it still displays the samurai swords on the altar in its main hall. The swords were the epitome of Japanese imperial militarism. Japanese rightists have been trying to restore the shrine’s status of a state institution. And politicians who visited the shrine often made remarks of denying Japan’s history of outbound aggressions.
Pressured by international criticism, Abe said at the parliament on May 15 that he had never denied Japan’s invasion of China and his cabinet would follow the statement made by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 on Japan’s reflection and apologies to war-related history. This, however, only serves to demonstrate a trait of Abe, namely skittishness, rather than a fundamental change in his outlook on history and wars. In his interview with the Foreign Affairs quarterly, he said: “I have never said that Japan has not committed aggression. Yet at the same time, how best, or not, to define ‘aggression’ is none of my business. That’s what historians ought to work on. I have been saying that our work is to discuss what kind of world we should create in the future.” This remark is a direct denial of the spirit of the Murayama statement.
As Prime Minister of Japan, Abe should be aware that Japan had committed to the stance as stated in Article 8 of the Potsdam Proclamation by signing the 1972 China-Japan Joint Communiqué and had committed to the principles specified in the Joint Communiqué by signing the 1978 China-Japan Treaty for Peace and Friendship. In the China-Japan Joint Declaration signed in 1998, “the Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious distress and damage that Japan caused to the Chinese people through its aggression against China during a certain period in the past and expressed deep remorse for this.”
Prime Minister Abe should understand that distorting history will bring disasters to the world in the future and that an understanding of and attitude towards Japan’s history of invading China is not an academic issue of history, but rather an issue of political principle in the relations between China and Japan.
Liu Jiangyong is the Vice President of the Research Institute of Contemporary International Relations at Qinghua University.