Japanese defence of Abe’s visit
The furore which has erupted over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit, in the last week of December, to the Yasukuni shrine, a war memorial which honours the spirit of around 2.5 million ‘fallen heroes’ – Japanese soldiers, officers and civilians who died in military service, can be understood in the context of the growing Japanese aspirations to shed the cloak of mediocrity and passiveness. This shrine was originally established in 1869 by the Meiji government and maintained by the Army and Navy Ministry until 1946, when the American Occupation authorities severed the relationship between the Shinto religion and the State.
What significance does the shrine have for Japanese society and politics and for Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors? Numerous journalistic and scholarly articles have examined the controversy over visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine. Some see these visits as representing the rise of jingoistic nationalism and militarism in Japan. They point to the fact that in 1978, the Yasukuni Shrine administration enshrined 14 executed World War Two class-A war criminals among the war dead. It has to be interpreted not only in the context of the current geo-political conditions but understood with a historical perspective as well. It is a convincing argument that the latest visit to the shrine by the Japanese premier was somewhat due to the rising pressure of the right wingers on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Shinzo Abe who was ousted from power after one year during his previous stint in 2007 seems to be more sensitive this time. Moreover, Japan is getting troubled by the increasing territorial claims by China, whose economic growth and rising military strength poses difficult questions for her. Recently there was some trouble over territorial claims over Senkaku islands, a rocky island in the East China Sea, which looked at first sight a mere territorial spat but escalated to dangerous levels. Both sides mobilised all their military, political, economic, cultural and diplomatic energies to engage in the dispute. In November China announced the establishment of an air-defence identification zone (ADIZ) in East China Sea that overlaps with Japan’s own ADIZ and includes the disputed islands which Japan controls. China’s rise has made not only Japan, but its other Asian neighbours and most of all America very anxious. United States seems ready to put up with a little show of provocation by Japan. US recent winding down from West Asia and Afghanistan has prompted its high profile ‘pivot to Asia’ to counter the influence of China in Asia. It poses difficult questions as well. Are these territorial fights by traditional allies of US like Japan, Philippines (South China Sea) and South Korea a proxy confrontation by America against China? Russian Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev’s visit to China in October 2013 to boost bilateral relations also reflects the enhancement of their strategic relation in recent years to counterbalance the US-Asia-Pacific Axis.
Shinzo Abe’s visit also demonstrates Japan’s desire to free Japan from what it considers as a humiliating and pacifist post Second World War Constitution. Article 9 of the Constitution limits Japanese military to self-defence and the Prime Minister feels that the Constitution could be amended by 2020, to make it a full-fledged military. Japan has been undergoing a period of introspection and an attempt is being made to emerge out of the stupor it has gone under. This has a historical context as well. The speed with which Japan modernised and industrialised in the second half of the nineteenth century under the Meiji government immediately escalated Japan to a position of strength in Asia. It very rapidly entered into the elite league of colonial countries, as junior partner of the imperialist nations like Britain and France. This status was reaffirmed after the Russia was decisively defeated in the war with Japan in 1905. This was the first Asian country to do so, it galvanised the nationalistic spirit not only in Japan, but most of the colonised countries in Asia were inspired by the hopes it generated. Japan embarked on its military adventures and achieved tremendous success. Its annexation of Taiwan (1895) and Korea (1910), occupation of Manchuria (1931) and ultimately its dream of creating a co-prosperity sphere in Asia were getting realized when it occupied parts of China, most of East and South East Asia. Mid 1940s Fascist Japan was getting closer to its dream of creating its own empire.
However, eventually it had to concede defeat, had to face the horrible disaster in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan’s will was broken, United States took the lead in pacifying/ restoring Japan. US saw to the rehabilitation of Japan in the post war years and was instrumental in the drafting of a constitution based on democracy, human rights and peace in 1946. Independent Japan was bound by the new constitution and the article 9, which made Japan only have defensive army. This is still the case. This Shrine has symbolic significance for Japan, it revives the glory of yesteryears when military tradition in Japan was honoured.
Japan is also trying to alter how history looks at is past misdemeanours, especially during the Second World War. There has been an official attempt to revise the history textbooks prescribed in the schools of Japan to present a more balanced picture of militaristic Japan and its conduct in the Second World War, especially relating to the Nanjing massacre (1937) and the role of the Japanese army in providing Korean women as comfort women for Japanese soldiers. Japanese leaders say that the figures quoted are grossly exaggerated and that this issue, at least needs to be contested and debated.
The author is assistant professor, Department of History, Sri Venkateswara College, DU