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A Moratorium on Yasukuni Visits

Monday, June 5, 2006 Posted: 07:37 PM JST

Mr. Koizumi’s successor should declare a moratorium on Yasukuni visits, says Kazuhiko Togo, former Japanese ambassador to the Netherlands and a visiting researcher at Princeton University.

Togo gives two reasons for a moratorium:

The first comes from a practical and moral point of view. Putting aside for a moment which position is more righteous, Mr. Koizumi’s assertion that it is a matter of his heart, or the Chinese government’s objection that it is impermissible to mourn war dead in a shrine where Class A war criminals are enshrined, there is no denying that this issue is jeopardizing dialogue between the two nations’ leaders.

At a time when there are so many real issues which need to be resolved at the top level, the inability to do so is creating harm to both countries. It is in the national interests of both countries to think of a way out. And if this practical consideration necessitates either of the two countries to make the first concession, Japan should take the first step.

That’s because when it comes to history, the Japanese side was, after all, on the perpetrator’s side. That background is sufficient reason for Japan to be humble and take the first step toward rapprochement. It will bring nothing but moral dignity to Japan.

But the second reason may be more fundamental. Japan has been going through a complex process of revisiting the issue of its identity, once shattered by defeat in World War II. Yasukuni is one of those fundamental contradictions which remained unresolved. This has nothing to do with China. It is exclusively a Japanese problem. If that is the case, why not utilize this opportunity for us to face our history more straightforwardly and try to reach a broad consensus inside Japan to overcome our own unresolved problem.

For this, Japan needs some breathing space. This is the main purpose of this moratorium.

The former ambassador then explains the need for reform of Yasukuni, especially the removal of is highly nationalistic war museum, the Yushuukan:

... the time is ripe for Yasukuni to revert to its most important function of mourning those who gave their life for their country within the religious serenity of the Shinto tradition. Those functions represented by the Yuushuukan should be separated from Yasukuni, and if necessary moved somewhere else.

Within Japan there is a debate over the construction of a neutral, non-religious national memorial of war dead as a solution of the “Yasukuni controversy.” But I believe that the national memory that many of the soldiers died with the vision of being reunited at Yasukuni is an important legacy that has to be respected. For those who cherish the memory of their fathers, husbands and relatives, it would be very difficult to accept any other place of mourning than Yasukuni. Establishment of a neutral memorial is likely to bring about polarization rather than reconciliation.

Thus, the ultimate solution to this controversy lies, in my view, in the reform of Yasukuni to make it acceptable for as many Japanese and foreigners as possible. The first major task is to transform Yasukuni into a place of pure mourning, not a place to learn about the specific world view which led Japan to World War II.

Japan also requires a sincere debate over responsibility according to Togo:

Japanese soldiers committed “damage and suffering” in China, a fact which both Prime Ministers Koizumi and Tomiichi Murayama acknowledged and for which they expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” If Japanese soldiers committed deeds that merit apology, then who was responsible for that?

The question of war responsibility is directly related to the issue of the enshrinement of Class A war criminals. Unless and until Japan itself gives an answer to the question of war responsibility, can we just ignore the significance of Class A war criminals? Even Shintaro Ishihara, one of the leading nationalist politicians and a consistent supporter of visits to Yasukuni, once stated that “Well, me too, when in 1978 I heard that Class A war criminals were enshrined, I also thought ‘oh! oh! oh!’......”

In the post-World War II discourse on history and Japan’s identity, the issue of war responsibility has been one of the most difficult issues about which there is no answer, no consensus and even no direction. I cannot prejudge where the discussion might lead. The recent agreement between the Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun newspapers to delve into the question of war responsibility is an encouraging development. But the impact of this search and its conclusion are far from predictable.

Togo then posits a list of concrete actions:

  • Found a national museum of prewar history.
  • Consider new moral and philosophical principles for the nation.
  • Regain an Asian identity.

This is a long and difficult process, says Togo, but necessary to pull Japan out of its dangerous drift:

This process may be a long one, and it may not succeed in promoting reconciliation with China in the immediate future. But at least Japan would be equipped with a long-term strategy to deal with its past and overcome present contradictions. From the point of view of Japan’s national interest, I firmly believe that however difficult and time-consuming it might be, moving ahead with a clear direction is infinitely better than remaining adrift, facing domestic polarization and impossible difficulties in relations with the rest of Asia. Japan will then take the moral high ground, moving forward to overcome the history issue with courage and sincerity. Even after all the above-mentioned policy objectives are achieved, Japan may still not be able to overcome its past completely. But that will be a story to be told in the long-time future, not foreseeable today.

Keywords: opinion_item

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