Social Issues / The Yasukuni Shrine And The Rise Of Japan’S New Nationalism

The Yasukuni Shrine And The Rise Of Japan’S New Nationalism

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Autor:  anton  07 May 2011
Tags:  Yasukuni,  Shrine,  Japans,  Nationalism
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The Yasukuni Shrine and the Rise of Japan’s New Nationalism

The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine established in 1869 in Tokyo. It was constructed in order to honor and worship the soldiers who have died for their country in the Boshin Civil War that brought about the Meiji restoration and sacrificed their lives in the service of their emperor to build a firm foundation for Japan to become a truly peaceful country. For some Asian countries such as China and South Korea, which had been victims under Japanese imperialism and aggression in the first half of the 20th century, the shrine was built to commemorate Japanese war criminals in the World War II, and it has become a blatant symbol for Japanese wartime militarism from the perspectives of these Asian countries. At the center of Yasukuni Shrine’s controversy is the fact that those venerated included 14 convicted class-A war criminals, including former Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo. The Yasukuni Shrine is therefore frequently at the center of political storms, especially when several Japanese cabinet members and prime ministers pay their visits to worship the souls of the military war dead at the Shrine each year, as neighboring countries consider the visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine as an attempt to legitimize Japan’s past militarism. The politicized symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine involves the conflict between incompatible Japanese party identities, the significance of Yasukuni in the Japanese nationalism, how the Japanese wartime history is perceived, and Japan’s diplomatic and political relations with its neighboring East Asian countries.

Once an important site for rituals centered on the imperial emperor, Yasukuni symbolizes the nation’s former fusion of the state and the Shinto religion, and it is the shrine where Japanese soldiers, officers, and civilian employees of the military who died in modern Japan's wars have been enshrined as heroic spirits. The shrine was administered by the army and navy up until the time of defeat in World War II when the American occupation authorities imposed the constitutional separation of religion and the state. The controversy over visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine arose from the fact that in 1978, the Yasukuni Shrine enshrined 14 executed World War II class-A criminals among the war dead, which generated dispute from neighboring Asian countries who view these visits as representing the glorification of Jingoistic nationalism and militarism in Japan. The essence of the issue lies in the historical heritage from the Japanese invasion and occupation which influenced the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean collective memories of the war. Yasukuni is not merely a memorial site where Japan’s 2.5 million military war dead are enshrined as deities, but the shrine, accompanied by a museum, is devoted to glorify Japanese militarism as a noble cause that strived to liberate Asia from Western powers and to promote an unapologetic view of Japan’s past atrocities through Korea, China, and much of Southeast Asia during the first few decades of the 20th century. The issue of shrine visits is exacerbated when Prime Minister Koizumi took office in 2001, and Japan’s diplomatic relations with China and Korea became increasingly intransigent.

From the Chinese and Korean perspectives, Koizumi’s visits to the shrine is regarded as an assertion of Japan’s wartime militarism, as the actions of democratic leaders are often taken as a reflection of the people they represent. Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yakusuni have revived the antagonism between Japan and China. As the situation in 2005 illustrated, both China and South Korea called off summit meetings with Koizumi, and both countries have vehemently opposed Japan’s bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, unless he agreed to stop his controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where top-ranked war criminals are honored among the war dead, and shows greater remorse towards the country’s war time aggressions. A string of anti-Japan protests also took place in Chinese cities in response to the Japanese political leaders’ misconducts regarding the historical issues. The conservatives in Japan attempted to deny the incidence of massacre and attempted to disguise the number of Chinese soldiers and civilians killed in the Rape of Nanking. In addition to their collective memories of being victims under Japanese imperial militaristic atrocities, the outburst Chinese and Korean anti-Japanese sentiments were triggered by the official approval of a Japanese history textbook written by nationalist historians that allegedly invalidated Japan’s wartime atrocities and justified the notion that Japan was a victimized nation as opposed to being an aggressor during the second world war.

Although Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned that Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni are an obstacle to better bilateral relations, Koizumi’s government interprets China’s reaction as an act that demonizes Japan to indoctrinate its citizens with patriotism and justify Communist rule. However, the Chinese negative reaction of Yasukuni can be justified by its history as a victim of Japan’s imperialist aggression. The Yasukuni Shrine is regarded as the glorification of Japanese militaristic aggression, and this evokes negative memory of Japanese suppression in China, such as the Nanking Massacre of 1937, which exemplifies Japanese atrocity, in which thousands of Chinese soldiers and innocent civilians were tortured and killed. The massacre also represented the militaristic history and the identity as an aggressor that Japanese cannot deny. The Rape of Nanking, as well as the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni, has deeply divided the views of political identity between the leftist and rightist camps in Japan. For the leftist and liberals, the Rape of Nanking is a key symbol of cruel Japanese militarism. They used the sympathy for civilian casualties to substantiate Article 9 of the constitution, which is essential to avoid another Nanking Massacre and to prevent Japan from waging wars in the future, and they viewed that the presence of Yasukuni proves the resurgence of Japanese militarism and the continual existence of feudalism in modern Japanese society. However, the rightist conservative camp in Japan is rising to prominence on a wave of patriotic assertiveness, and their influence is evident in the rewriting of Japanese textbooks to deny imperial Japan’s conquest in China. Therefore, in addition to its militaristic history and ideology chasm between political camps, the symbolism of Yasukuni adds external political pressure on Japanese government to re-examine the articulation of its wartime past.

Not only does the Yasukuni controversy generated disapproval from Japan’s Asian neighbors, it also created domestic debate between the leftist and rightist political groups in Japan. In contrast to the Japanese leftist, the Chinese, and the Korean, the prime minister’s shrine visits are supported by right-wing nationalists, who form a significant core component of the support base of the Liberal Democratic Party and dominates today’s political picture in Japan. The Japanese rightists have a positive perception of the Yasukuni Shrine, as they consider it as a symbol of self-sacrifice and patriotism and the resting place to honor spirits of warriors who had died for the nation. Moreover, The Japanese remember the war and wartime atrocities in a way which is totally different from how the war is remembered in China or South Korea. Japanese remembrance of World War Two runs as a narrative of a victimized nation. All war memories were directed towards the memory of the suffering of the ordinary civilian Japanese, who were indeed the victims of the war. The calamity that had been inflicted upon non-Japanese are seldom considered in Japan. Therefore, the Yaskuni Shrine carries a different symbolism from that in the rest of Asia.

Preoccupied by their personal identities and their sense of pride and independence as a nation, the rightists did not regard Japan’s imperial expansion or war against the United States as immoral. Furthermore, “the rightists consider that condemning Japan’s role in World War Two logically leads to a condemnation of Japan’s modern history, generally seen as beginning with Meiji… Rightists also fear that an admission of guilt for past transgressions would turn their erstwhile fathers and brothers into war criminals.” Also, they believe that Japanese wartime atrocities have been exaggerated and thus strive to tarnish the image of Japan’s history which as been labeled as inhumane. For the Japanese rightists, the Yasukuni shrine represents patriotism, the value, and the righteousness of sacrifice to the nation. The right-idealist camp is consisted of three broad groups of members, which include the major rightist pressure groups, small right-wing activist groups, and rightist intellectuals who disseminate their ideas in the mass media. Among these three groups, the most politically powerful are the pressure organizations such as the Japan Association of Bereaved Families (JABF) that can mobilize about one million votes and supply abundant financial resources for the rightist cause. Other smaller pressure organizations include the Military Pension Federation and the retired military men’s Association to Commemorate the Spirit of Fallen Heroes. Almost all of these rightist pressure groups maintain a close relationship with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who is striving to expand its support base since the electoral reform in 1994. With an eye on votes, the prime ministers are prone to fulfill the demand of the rightist camp to foster nationalism and sought to make a gesture to the bereaved families by paying respect to the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine.

After Prime Minister Nakasone, few Japanese prime ministers had paid their visits to worship the souls of the dead at the Yasukuni Shrine each year. The sensitivity of the issue has increased since Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro took office in 2001, as Japan has pushed ahead with a more assertive international role for its military. In contrast to former LDP prime ministers, Koizumi had challenged the mainstream foreign policies of the LDP government and put forth a radical positioning over the Yasukuni issue by rebuffing warnings from the Chinese and Korean leaders who pressurized him to renounce his visits to the shrine. However, Koizumi has continued to visit the shrine even though his repeated visits have endangered Japan’s past effort to improve diplomatic relationship with China and Korea. Indeed, Koizumi has considered constructing a new memorial site for the war dead, where Japanese cabinet members and foreign dignitaries could pay their respects. But a new memorial lacks the gravity of history and tradition and cannot serve to represent the continuity between the prewar and postwar Japanese state. By withstanding domestic and foreign political pressure, Koizumi gained domestic support by appealing to Japan’s rising nationalist sentiments and by creating an image of bold stance against his Asian neighbors. The motive behind Koizumi’s visits to the shrine is one that is associated with domestic political factor. Koizumi draws heavily on Japan’s nationalist past and is unambiguous in his support for the right-ideologist camp and his passion for revision of the constitution regarding the Article 9. Also, Koizumi’s lack of interest in genuinely engage in Asian diplomacy is originated from the faction that he belongs to, the Mori faction, which is derived from the Kishi faction. These factions were all conservative and nationalistic. Moreover, the demise of the Tanaka faction in the LDP, which was most interested in Asian diplomacy, further diminishes Koizumi’s interest in enhancing the diplomatic relations with its neighboring Asian countries.

Likewise, Koizumi’s administration stance, which enables him to gain unprecedented popularity, is based on his strong leadership on the position of domestic policies and international relations. Moreover, the largest leftist party, the JSP, declined rapidly after it lost its traditional supporters when it formed a coalition with the LDP in 1994. Without the leftist camp’s criticism on Asian policy, Koizumi’s decision has an important implication regarding the audiences to whom his visits play, and more specifically, his audiences are mainly the rightist pressure group JABF. This is because traditionally, LDP is supported by large integrated interest groups from construction, agriculture, postal services, and small businesses. However, Koizumi’s economic and political reforms such as the privatization of postal services have antagonized and alienated many interest organizations that are the traditional support base of the LDP. Therefore, the JABF has become the crucial powerful support group that Koizumi can count on. In order to support the revival of Japanese nationalism and patriotism, the visits to Yasukuni serve not as a symbol of resurgence of Japanese militarism, but it acts an important role as the catalyst to resurrect the declining notion of Japan as a state. However, the sense of national identity is shifting constantly, just as the postwar generation, headed by Koizumi, has a different sentiment from Nakasone’s generation towards Japan’s political and military involvement in Asia and Japan’s war atrocities. The worldview of the Japanese new generation changes, as the size of Japanese rightist camp shrinks due to aging membership. As the shared sense of wartime history is declining, so does the symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine, and the rightists may lose the powerful pressure group that lend it influence in Japanese politics and have to refine their sense of historical identity as the Japanese society continues to modernize.

The essence of the Yasukuni Shrine controversy is a case of conflicting identities between the Japanese leftist and rightist ideological groups, the Chinese, and the Korean. The Yasukuni has different fundamental symbolic meaning for each of these groups, and each is associated with their unique perception and social memories of wartime history. Although there are strong anti-Japanese sentiments in both the Chinese and Korean societies, the Sino-Japanese conflict is not inevitable, and it is possible to dissolve the antagonism between Japan and China. While Japanese right-wing nationalist will have to change their belligerent and unrepentant attitudes towards its Asian neighbors of Japan’s imperial past, the Chinese Communist party will have to refrain from demonizing and seizing on Japanese provocation to stimulate their own people’s nationalistic passions.


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