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Home » Archives » August 2006 » Nationalism, Historical Memory and Contemporary Conflicts in the Asia Pacific: the Yasukuni Phenomenon, Japan, and the United States

Nationalism, Historical Memory and Contemporary Conflicts in the Asia Pacific: the Yasukuni Phenomenon, Japan, and the United States

Tuesday, August 29, 2006 Posted: 10:53 AM JST

(by Mark Selden) - I will make three points about the “Yasukuni Problem” and contemporary nationalism that seem to me absent in much of the discussion both in Japan and internationally. The first is the need to transcend an exclusively Japanese perspective by locating the issues within the framework of the Japan-US relationship that has dominated Japanese politics for more than six decades; the second is the importance of locating “Yasukuni nationalism” within the broader purview of competing nationalisms in the Asia Pacific, including Chinese, Korean and US nationalisms; the third requires that we deconstruct “the Japanese,” to recognize deep divisions among the people with respect to Yasukuni and to memories of colonialism and war. Each of these requires breaking with a monolithic understanding of the issues. Each has implications for moving beyond the present political impasse and reflecting on approaches that could contribute toward tension reduction in the Asia Pacific.

Yasukuni Jinja both is and is not a “Japanese” problem. As a Shinto shrine with close links to the emperor it immediately evokes Japanese tradition. Yet to see it simply as quintessentially Japanese is to neglect a range of features characteristic of contemporary nationalisms, and to ignore important regional and global forces, particularly the role of the United States in shaping politics and ideology from the Japanese occupation to today.

Japanese proponents of the new nationalism insist on Yasukuni’s quintessential Japaneseness, thereby attempting to placing it beyond discussion by people in neighboring and other countries, as well as seeking to crush debate within Japan. But they are not alone in their stress on Japaneseness. With their call for a politics of pride, scorn of the Tokyo Trials’ assessment of Japanese war crimes, and insistence that the era of apologies should end, Japanese nationalists share something with Chinese and South Korean critics and even with many progressives and pacifists in Japan. Whether praising Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s visits to Yasukuni and defending the legitimacy of the Yûshûkan museum exhibits in the Shrine’s grounds, or criticizing them as an illegitimate attempt to reverse historical verdicts and a slap in the face to Japan’s neighbors, both nationalists and progressives routinely present Yasukuni as a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.

Yasukuni and the US-Japan Relationship

Yasukuni is, of course, quintessentially Japanese in its mix of Shinto and emperor lore, its architecture and rituals, and its nationalist perspective on colonialism and war as emphatically presented in Yûshûkan’s exhibits. As Yomiuri Shimbun editor Watanabe Tsuneo comments of the exhibits, “That facility praises militarism and children who go through that memorial come out saying, ‘Japan actually won the last war.’”

Yet analyses that fail to locate the issues pertaining to Yasukuni and contemporary nationalism in broader regional and global perspective ignore the six decades of postwar history of Japan and the Asia Pacific and contemporary power realities. I propose to locate Yasukuni and the diverse responses that it inspires among Japanese in the politics of the postwar era, particularly the US-Japan relationship and to reflect briefly on war commemoration rites elsewhere, notably in the United States.

Throughout the Fifteen Year War (1931-45), indeed from Meiji forward, Yasukuni Shrine was the centerpiece of what Takahashi Tetsuya has termed the “emotional alchemy” of turning the grief of bereaved families into the patriotic exhilaration of enshrinement of the war dead as deities with the stamp of official recognition of personal sacrifice and honor by the emperor. It is an alchemy, sealed in lavish Japanese government payments to deceased soldiers, that for six decades has forged a bond between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a powerful constituency, while implicitly legitimating the aims of colonialism and war for which so many Japanese soldiers and civilians died. Another kind of alchemy goes hand in hand with the alchemy of exhilaration. This is the alchemy of forgetting . . . forgetting atrocities and war crimes, forgetting the treatment of the military comfort women, of forced laborers, of those whose lands were invaded, homes destroyed and families slaughtered.

All nations seek symbolic elevation of the sacrifice of the dead—their own dead—as a means to secure the willingness of soldiers and civilians to fight and die for goals proclaimed by the state. The same is true of groups challenging state power through armed struggle in the name of democracy, national liberation, revolution or other goals. If the symbolism of Yasukuni is distinctive in its particulars, it is but one such manifestation of a global phenomenon of state-sponsored war nationalism. In the postwar period, Yasukuni, with the enshrinement of Japan’s 2.46 million military dead, the senbotsusha, from Meiji through the Pacific War emerged as the central symbol linking emperor, war, nation and empire. The more than one million Japanese civilian victims of the Fifteen Year War, are excluded from this pantheon of heroes, though they are exalted in the Showakan or National Showa Memorial Museum.

Tokyo’s Showakan, not far from Yasukuni, portrays the home front, particularly the contributions of women, as the backbone of the war effort, while masking the destruction of Japan’s cities and the deaths by bombing of hundreds of thousands that were the fruit of Japan’s decision to go to war in the final months of the conflict. This is a story of loyalty and perseverance, not one of death and destruction.

The millions of Asian victims of the war are, of course, excluded from the memories preserved in the shrines and museums that present Japanese state representations of the epoch. In this respect, Japan is more the norm than the exception, as in the omission of Vietnamese or Korean victims in Washington’s war memorials, or of German victims in London’s war memorials. The reality is nevertheless sobering.

The postwar period brought a subtle yet crucial change in the construction of Japanese war memories. During the occupation, the “Yasukuni Problem,” like so much else, became a quintessentially Japan-US problem with implications for the entire Asia Pacific region and beyond. Specifically, the Yasukuni problem as viewed through this lens grows out of the US occupation, the permanent positioning of US forces in Japan, and the US decision to preserve Emperor Hirohito on the throne at the symbolic center of postwar Japanese politics yet subordinate to American power. It is also a product of US insistence on constitutional provisions separating church and state.

Stated differently, it is necessary to grasp the Yasukuni problem in the context of the era of American hegemony, particularly Japanese subordination within a strategic order whose most notable feature has been the dominance of US military forces in the Asia Pacific over six decades. This includes the repercussions of successive US wars with their immense toll on Asian life and their ambiguous outcomes (notably stalemate or defeat in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq), as well as the empire of bases that the US extended from Japan and Korea eastward to Guam and eventually westward to Iraq and Afghanistan in Central Asia and the Middle East.

The US retention of Hirohito on the throne, as visually represented in the iconic official photograph of Douglas MacArthur towering over the emperor, was and is central to defining Japan’s regional and global role.

It is a role defined by the permanent presence of US forces and the US-Japan Security Treaty (AMPO), which in 1951 became the precondition for ending the occupation and defining Japan’s subordinate place in the constellation of US policies in Asia. This had profound consequences for how war and empire would be remembered and presented to the Japanese people. With the emperor officially exonerated of all responsibility for initiating or waging war, indeed credited by both the occupation authorities and the Japanese government with bringing peace by personally intervening to end the war, Japanese citizens and officials were released from personal obligation to reflect on Japan’s aggression in Asia or the war crimes committed by Japanese forces. Not only would the emperor not be tried as a war criminal at the Tokyo Trials, he would be shielded even from testifying. The Tokyo Trials verdict against Tojo and a small number of prominent military and government officials, as well as several thousand low-level military and police officials tried in B and C class trials, essentially absolved the Japanese people from the responsibility to examine their own behavior in the era of colonialism and war. For these reasons, the US must ultimately be involved in resolving Yasukuni and other issues of war responsibility that it helped to create.

Yasukuni Shrine, shorn of its official ties to the state and given a ‘private’ religious status, has become the central symbol for those who defend the memory of colonialism and war and deny calls from Chinese, Koreans and other victims—but also victors such as GI prisoners of war—for apologies and compensation that can pave the way toward reconciliation.

Emperor Hirohito made eight postwar visits to Yasukuni, but while he ceased to make personal appearances after the 1978 enshrinement of 14 Class-A war criminals, the symbolism linking emperor-Yasukuni-war-empire has remained powerful. The failure to resolve issues of war responsibility with Japan’s neighbors requires recognition of the fact that issues pertaining to Yasukuni and the new nationalism can only be resolved through regional accommodation, which in turn hinges on the nature of the US-Japan security relationship.

The US occupation and the AMPO treaty locked Japan within the orbit of anti-Communism in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. US military protection also insulated Japan from pressures to reconcile with China, South Korea and other formerly occupied nations. Indeed, the US actively worked to prevent the resumption of economic and political ties with China in the immediate postwar decades. The China factor has grown in importance in recent decades as China emerged as a major power and competitor in Asia and as US-China conflicts have deepened in the early years of the new millennium.

One result of the Koizumi Yasukuni visits since 2001 is that five years would pass without a meeting at the highest levels of the Chinese and Japanese leadership. Political conflict intensified between the two dominant Asian powers and between neighboring nations, notably Korea, whose economy has become so deeply intertwined with Japan’s. This has, of course, been a period in which other Japan-China conflicts, notably the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands territorial and oil and gas dispute have flared. Japan-South Korea relations have been similarly poisoned by the combination of Yasukuni nationalism and territorial disputes centered on the Dokdo/Takeshima Islets, off-setting the potentially salutary influence of the shared hosting of the 2002 World Cup and a surprising cultural boom across their borders.

The clashes in the region have gone hand in hand with challenges from a resurgent Japanese nationalism that has frequently played out around Yasukuni. Abe Shinzo, the leading candidate to replace Koizumi as Prime Minister, visits the shrine regularly on August 15, the date of Japan’s surrender. Although declining to visit the shrine on that date in 2006, in order to downplay the issue in the upcoming leadership contest, Abe tested the international and domestic political waters by making an earlier unpublicized visit to the shrine that was subsequently disclosed. In June 2006 Abe firmly rejected Beijing’s call for an end to Yasukuni visits as a precondition for talks, saying "We cannot and will not allow Japan's freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and our feeling in memory of the war dead to be violated in such a manner.” In his August 15 visit to Yasukuni, Prime Minister Koizumi insisted once again that the issues are purely domestic. “I prayed for those who sacrificed for their country and . . . their families” he intoned, once more inflaming the sensibilities of Asian victims by remembering the war essentially as a matter of honoring the Japanese military dead.

Viewing Japan as a Monolith

The Japanese polity has been, and continues to be, deeply divided over how to remember the era of colonialism and war in general, and the Yasukuni problem in particular. Hence the fierce debate provoked by Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits in Japan as well as internationally. These divisions are well exemplified in recent statements by the editors of the Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun calling for an end to the Yasukuni visits, by a call from the leading Osaka-based Japanese Association of Business Executives (Keizai Doyukai) to terminate the visits as detrimental to China-Japan and Korea-Japan business ties, as well as by a statement by Yamasaki Taku, a leading LDP figure close to Koizumi, suggesting that the visits may be unconstitutional.

At the popular level, for more than half a century public sentiment in favor of Article 9, the no-war clause in Japan’s Constitution, has been crucial in preventing the ruling party from revising the Constitution to legitimate overseas military activities. Most important, strong popular support for Article 9 is one important factor that has enabled Japan, a nation that was more or less continuously at war from 1895 to 1945, to enjoy six decades of peace and prosperity. Support for Article 9 goes hand in hand with substantial popular sentiment critical of Japan’s wartime conduct, a finding repeatedly confirmed in public opinion polls. Of course, as in the case of understanding the nature of the Yasukuni problem, the six decades of peace and Japanese pacifism also must be located within the framework of US power and the AMPO treaty that have been the bulwark of Japanese security for more than half a century.

Critiques of the Pacific War are not limited to pacifists and progressives. Kaya Okinori (1889-1977), who led the War Bereaved Families Association (Nihon izoku kai), for fifteen years beginning in 1962, was finance minister in the Tojo cabinet. The Association is the most powerful political bulwark for Yasukuni Shrine, and, indeed of the Liberal Democratic Party, which in turn continues to support family members financially six decades after the war. Kaya served ten years of a life sentence imposed by the Tokyo Trials before being released and eventually taking up a post as Justice Minister. In his memoirs, Kaya condemned Japan’s war against the US and criticized his own role in the war. His most important point, no less pertinent today than when he wrote, is this: “as a Japanese, it is extremely regrettable that the people themselves could not judge the responsibility of their leaders.” As noted, obstacles to such judgment by the Japanese people, both legal and ethical, were inherent in US occupation policy that preserved Hirohito on the throne, making it difficult to engage in serious self-criticism of the colonialism and war that were the hallmarks of the initial decades of his reign, or to censure officials responsible for those policies.

This does not mean that the Japanese people have made no efforts to come to terms with Japan’s war record. The opposite is the case: in the face of obstacles associated with US policies and Japanese nationalism, significant numbers of Japanese, particularly those of the wartime generation, absorbed important lessons concerning Japan’s disastrous wartime epoch and sought to make amends to its victims, not least by rejecting the wartime ideology of emperor, colonialism and kokutai. For example, many Japanese scholars have displayed dedication, resourcefulness and courage in researching and analyzing Japanese war crimes and atrocities and mounting vigorous critiques of government policy on Yasukuni and related issues.

While Japanese society remains divided over war memory and Article Nine, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the discrediting of socialist alternatives to capitalism, and the decline of social democracy that is the product of a US-spearheaded neoliberalism, a nationalist revival has accompanied the redefinition of the US-Japan security relationship. The imprint of these same phenomena, reflecting both the global thrust of nationalism and responses to US power and policy, is discernible, with significant variations, in other Pacific nations, including Korea and China.

The Political Logic of Yasukuni Nationalism and the US-Japan Alliance

Prime Minister Koizumi has made his annual Yasukuni pilgrimage one of the two central symbolic and practical international actions of his five-year tenure (the other being the dispatch of Japanese ground troops [GSDF] to Iraq and naval forces [MSDF] to the Persian Gulf), an act that affronts two important nations on Japan’s borders and antagonizes many others. Perhaps it is precisely because Koizumi has moved so determinedly to lash Japan to US regional and global strategic designs (“I need you, I love you,” he crooned to President Bush in his Elvis Presley imitation during his final visit to the US) that Yasukuni looms large for him. Indeed, Japan’s deepening structural dependence and subordination requires the theatre of nationalism to make it palatable. What is denied in substance must be affirmed and celebrated in ritual and symbol. Paradoxically, for Japan to become the Great Britain of East Asia, as in its dispatch of GSDF to Iraq and MSDF to the Persian Gulf, Yasukuni and other rituals of bravado are indispensable. Nationalist bravado may conceal an overweening reality of dependence. Precisely the Koizumi administration’s support for the US war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s global “war on terror” buys it tacit US support for a Yasukuni nationalism. The new Yasukuni nationalism, however, in invoking a hardening Japanese assessment of the legitimacy of the Pacific War, has the potential to clash with a strengthened US-Japan security relationship.

At a time when many nations are criticizing the Bush administration’s scorn of international norms of law and justice, as in its flouting the Geneva Conventions in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and in its claims to the right to intervene everywhere, precisely the Koizumi administration’s docility in supporting US ambitions increases the importance of Yasukuni as a statement to strengthen its nationalist credentials at home. Stated differently, as Japan places ever more of its cards on an expansive military alliance with the US, as illustrated by its extraordinary payment of $6 billion (and perhaps much more) to fund the cost of transferring 8,000 US Marines from Okinawa to Guam and commits to an enlarged regional military role at a time of US military restructuring in Japan, Okinawa and throughout the Asia Pacific, all the more it requires claims to nationalist credentials domestically.

The evolving character of the alliance is well illustrated by the transfer of the I Corps regional headquarters for the Asia Pacific and the Middle East from Washington State to Camp Zama in Kanagawa, Japan, and the now permanent MSDF presence in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in support of the US war in Iraq and the regional “war on terror”, but also announcing Japan’s intention to guard its oil lifeline from the Middle East. The US military’s five-day "Valiant Shield" exercise off Guam in June brought together US and allied Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast guard forces involving an armada of three aircraft carriers and 25 other ships, including the Yokosuka-based Kitty Hawk group and other Japan-based ships. The 22,000 troops and 280 warplanes, including the III Marine Expeditionary Force and 5th Air Force based in Okinawa, joined in the largest military exercise in the Pacific since the Vietnam War. This sent powerful warning signals toward both North Korea and China, despite (or precisely because of) the fact that a Chinese officer attended as an observer. Most important, perhaps, from the perspective of understanding the Yasukuni phenomenon, is the fact that Japan’s military subordination to US power enables it to expand its military reach and ignore or flout the strong feelings of Asian neighbors, even those that are important economic partners.

US Navy maneuvers in Valiant Shield

Since the 1980s, China-Japan and Korea-Japan economic relationships have grown exponentially at the same time that their political relations have soured. Notable are territorial conflicts with South Korea over Tokdo/Takeshima and with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, both further inflamed by the intertwined issues of natural gas and fishing rights, as well as by simmering textbook controversies and manga [comic] battles over war memory and contemporary cultural relations. Japan’s diplomatic problems with its neighbors bring together unresolved historical issues of colonialism and war, and territorial-resource conflicts that threaten to undermine critical economic relationships and bring turmoil to Northeast Asia. These conflicts are fueled by, and reinforce, Yasukuni nationalism, in turn revving up nationalist responses among Japan’s neighbors and squandering the opportunities inherent in expansive economic and cultural relations.

Yet the new Yasukuni nationalism which has emerged since the mid-1990s also reflects a deep malaise at accepting dominant US interpretations of the Japanese empire and the Fifteen Year War as enshrined in the Tokyo Trials verdicts that held Japan guilty of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, and that handed down death sentences to seven of its top military and political leaders convicted of war crimes. In other words, if Yasukuni nationalism directly targets China and Korea by insisting on the virtue of Japan’s war and colonialism, in calling into question the Tokyo Trials’ verdicts, and in evoking many of the central themes of wartime emperor-centered nationalism, including the presentation of the war as a Japanese effort to liberate Asia, it also suggests a possible collision course with the United States. With the Yûshûkan Museum as the embodiment of this new (actually older) Yasukuni nationalism, it is clear that a major effort is underway to win popular support in a nation which remains deeply divided over the war and its legacy, and hence about Japanese nationalism.

Nationalism and War in the 21st Century

Japan’s Yasukuni problem is inseparable from the fact that nationalism is the dominant ideology of our era, as is abundantly clear in media representations and popular consciousness in time of war and international conflict. This pattern is exemplified not only by Japan but also by South Korea, China and the US, among many others. And it is surely nationalism—stimulated and given new outlets throughout Asia by the end of the era of US-Soviet confrontation, the rise of China as a regional and world power, and aggressive US actions associated with the “war on terror”—that constitutes the most powerful obstacle to resolution of the issues that divide nations and inflame passions in Northeast Asia and beyond. Throughout the twentieth century, nationalism has everywhere been the handmaiden of war: war has provided a powerful stimulus to nationalism; nationalism has repeatedly led nations to war; and war memory is central to framing nationalist historical legacies.

The American Shrine to war nationalism, our Yasukuni Shrine if you will, is Arlington National Cemetery, the repository of official celebration of American wars. It boasts no less than 260,000 grave markers in a site that is administered by the US Army. By contrast, Yasukuni provides no individual markers, but the records of each of the deceased, including not only Japanese but also 50,000 Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean soldiers of the Japanese imperial armed forces, are preserved as central to the enshrinement process. Indeed, whereas American war nationalism requires the tracking down and recovery of the dead from US combat zones, a process that continues in Korea and Vietnam decades after the end of the war, as Utsumi Aiko points out, more than one million Japanese bodies remain unrecovered and unsought after throughout the battlefields of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. What the two sites share are war narratives emphasizing each nation’s just and heroic combat in all of its wars. One can search in vain at Arlington, for example, for any self-critical reflection on American wars, above all any understanding of the plight of the victims of those wars, still less of atrocities or war crimes committed by American forces.

War memorials almost everywhere (Okinawa being a rare exception) celebrate the war-making prowess of the state. War memorials link the military, the nation and people in a perfect union against a common foe. The problem of nationalism becomes acute, however, when the failure to come to terms with the dark side of aggressive and expansionist wars either paves the way for new military adventures, as in the US military record since World War II, or when symbolic state acts antagonize the victims of former wars, impede reconciliation, or create conditions conducive to a new cycle of wars, as in contemporary Japan. In fact, as we have shown, American and Japanese war nationalisms are intertwined as a result of US occupation policies and the subsequent forging of the US-Japan military alliance. Yet charges of neonationalism have centered almost exclusively on Japan, perhaps because it is the more vulnerable of the two, despite the fact that the US replaced Japan as the nation involved in a nearly unbroken succession of wars beyond its borders in the wake of World War II.

The comparison suggests both the necessity for the governments and people of both nations to reflect deeply on their war records and to act to forestall actions that may lead to a new round of wars. For Japan this means finding effective means, including apologies and making amends to victims of its earlier wars and colonialism, including payments to victims, forging a consensus on the war that will enable Japan and its neighbors to look toward a cooperative future, and acting in the service of regional and global peace. The fact that it is six decades since Japan invaded its neighbors is all the more reason to lay to rest the ghosts of earlier wars in ways that will reduce the likelihood of future regional wars.

In noting the close relationship between nationalism and war, I do not wish to equate all nationalisms. In particular, I distinguish anticolonial nationalisms, that is nationalisms of resistance to invasion and colonization, from aggressive and expansionist forms of nationalism. Nevertheless, both nationalisms risk degenerating into malignant chauvinisms that pave the way for subsequent rounds of war.

From Yasukuni Politics to Tension Reduction and Regional Integration in the Asia Pacific

I conclude by looking beyond Yasukuni politics, the politics of nationalism and confrontation, to reflect briefly on more hopeful regional alternatives, the sprouts of regionalism and the possibilities for tension reduction that would stimulate the forces of economic integration and cultural interplay that have emerged in recent years in the face of powerful countercurrents.

East Asia is presently in the early stages of what could emerge as the third great epoch of region formation. This follows on the Sinocentric tributary-trade order which reached its peak in the eighteenth century, an era of prolonged peace and prosperity in much of the region, and a Japancentric Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere of the 1930s and 1940s, an era of permanent war and conflict. The postwar US hegemonic order in Asia, like the nineteenth century colonial order, was predicated on region fragmentation/division and the privileging of bilateral security, political and economic relationships within the US zone rather than on regional integration.

The US-China opening of 1970 and the resurgence of Asian economies in the final decades of the twentieth century paved the way for the reknitting of regional bonds. This was not a regionalism of the European Union type with its thick political, security, legal and diplomatic integration as manifest, for example, in the European parliament, a common currency, and common judicial structure. But for the last quarter century regional economic integration, measured by trade, investment, and technology transfers, proceeded rapidly. In particular, China, Japan and South Korea became among each other’s top trade partners and investment targets, and the percentage of trade among the nations of East Asia grew steadily to high levels. If the US has retained strategic primacy in the region, its economic predominance has declined with the growth of the regional economy and finance. In recent years, this pattern of regional integration has been reinforced by surprising levels of cultural interaction (albeit not without xenophobic reaction) involving film, TV, anime, music, and manga, with China-Japan-South Korea interchange among the most dynamic and intense in the cultural realm. At the same time, regional integration centered on ASEAN and, recently, ASEAN + 3 (China, Japan and Korea), has emerged, with China playing a vigorous regional role and Japan a more reticent one. Other regional formations have simultaneously appeared, notably including the Shanghai Group linking Russia, China and Central Asian nations, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), with active Chinese diplomacy and US-Chinese competition evident toward each regional grouping.

There are, of course, major obstacles to realizing the cooperative and harmonious possibilities inherent in the economic and cultural spheres of regional cooperation in East Asia. Among the most important is the potential clash with the political and strategic dimensions of Japanese nationalism and/or the US-Japan order, both of whose geopolitics appear to center on curbing an ascendant China and threaten the possibility of a unified Korea.

A central dilemma for the new millennium is how to transcend nationalisms that inflame rather than harmonize regional interests. To the extent that the critique of nationalism pivots on privileging the nationalism of another power, the result can only be a deepening spiral of conflict. It is essential that critiques of nationalism begin, therefore, with close examination of one’s own nation, the consequences of its nationalism, and the presence and possibilities of alternative political perspectives. The postwar predominance of US power has long granted it impunity from confronting its own war crimes and atrocities, a very short list of which would highlight the 1945 bombing of Japanese cities culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, policies that took more than two million predominantly civilian lives in Korea and two to three million in Vietnam, and that extend to aggressive and illegal wars that have laid waste vast areas of Iraq today. Assessment of the Yasukuni problem, in particular one by an American, must locate the issues within the parameters of the US-Japan relationship. It requires reflection on both Japanese and American war crimes and atrocities that have yet to be recognized and effectively addressed by the Japanese or American governments in the form of apologies and remuneration.

History matters. The starting point for reconciliation in the wake of wars, as the German experience amply demonstrates, lies with overcoming historical blindspots to recognize one’s own war crimes and atrocities and redress victim grievances. The gravest atrocities are invariably committed by aggressor nations, but atrocities and war crimes have never been limited to aggressors. In the absence of steps by all parties toward overcoming the historical legacy of earlier wars, Asia and the Pacific seem destined to continue to fight in new ways many of the still unresolved battles of the Fifteen Year War.

* I am indebted to Gavan McCormack, Philip Seaton and William Underwood for critical comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Mark Selden is a coordinator of Japan Focus. His recent book is War and State Terrorism. The United States, Japan and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century. This is a revised and expanded version of a presentation to the Conference on the Yasukuni Problem, Seoul, July 20, 2006. Originally at Japan Focus on August 25, 2006.

Keywords: opinion_item

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