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Japan's tone-deaf diplomacy

Recently, China and Korea have expressed outrage at a new Japanese history textbook that glosses over Japanese wartime atrocities, and at Japanese politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are honored along with the rest of Japan's war dead.

Springing into action, Japan's prime minister Junichiro Koizumi issued an apology yesterday for his country's past actions that hit all the right notes. The Mainichi Daily News reports:

"Our country caused huge damage and pain to many countries, especially our Asian neighbors, through colonial rule and aggression, " Koizumi said.

..."We humbly face historical facts. Through deep regret and a heartfelt apology, Japan became an economic superpower after World War II but not a military giant and has maintained a policy of settling any problems peacefully without resorting to armed force," Koizumi said.

"We are determined to contribute to world peace and prosperity, while at the same time place importance on trustful relationships with other countries."
Sounds good, except for a bit of poor timing: On the very same day Koizumi was issuing his apology, 80 other members of Japan's national Diet, most of them from Koizumi's party, were paying a visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The unfortunate juxtaposition of events inspired the following editorial cartoon in Korea's Chosun Ilbo:
In the upper panel, Koizumi issues his apology to Korea; below, the 80 politicians are shown honoring war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine. One of them says, "The prime minister was not available to come here, since he is on a trip."

Japan's bumbling diplomacy plays into cultural sterotypes of Japanese saying one thing but doing another. To put it more delicately, it seems to illustrate the the Japanese concepts of tatemae, the face one presents to the world, and honne, one's true feelings.

But does it really? I personally don't doubt that Koizumi, and almost all Japanese, do honestly regret the harm Japan once inflicted on its Asian neighbors. Surely, its past sixty years of peaceful coexistence with them must go a long way towards proving its sincere rejection of its militarist past. Yet as long as Japan's actions continue to undermine its words, Koizumi's latest apology is unlikely to have an impact any greater than the dozens of other official apologies Japan has issued over the past several decades.

To break this cycle of impotent outrage and empty apology, Japan should do two things:

(1) Set forth a minimum required treatment of certain historical events, such as the Rape of Nanking and the use of comfort women, for all history textbooks. They should be addressed in sufficient detail to provide students an understanding of what really happened. Such texts can still allow Japanese students to take pride in all that their nation has accomplished, and how far it has progressed, since then. Indeed, ignoring Japan's dramatic postwar transformation would be just as misleading as glossing over its wartime actions.

(2) Redefine Yasukuni Shrine (or, perhaps, dedicate a new shrine) as a memorial to all Japanese war dead, without giving special emphasis to military leaders or war criminals. No one can fairly object to a nation honoring its dead. Singling out the architects of Japan's invasion of China and Korea for special honor generates much antipathy toward Japan without providing any particular benefit.

I've written before that China has a lot of nerve criticizing Japan when China itself tolerates no interference in its own "internal affairs". But that doesn't mean China, and Korea, are fundamentally wrong. If only it would take a few key actions, Japan could finally put an end to its decades-long string of apologies. And China and Korea would have to find something else to complain about.

FOLLOW-UP:
You can't beat primary research. As I learned when I went to Yasukuni yesterday, there is no part of the shrine itself specifically dedicated to the war criminals.

However, their spirits were inducted into the shrine in a separate ceremony some years after the war, which may have given the impression that these men were being accorded a distinctive honor.

Also, there is a war museum practically next door to the shrine that goes into great detail about Japan's military history, including the actions of men like Tojo, from (as might be expected) a very sympathetic perspective.

I'm planning a further post about Yasukuni, but it's going to take a little time.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

You got this one dead right. There's a reason the Germans are largely forgiven in Europe while the Japanese are still unforgiven in Asia. The Germans as a society made a decision to ruthlessly stamp out any signs of nazism, whereas not only do the Japanese let their Uyoku  run wild, the politicians periodically appease them by going to Yasukuni or making questionable statements about history or approving whitewashed textbooks. It's no surprise that "unfortunate things occurred"-type non-apologies fail to satisfy the victims of Japanese aggression.
The Japanese have a word, 誠意(seii), meaning sincerity or good faith, without which an apology is held to be meaningless. I think that so far Japan as a nation has yet to show 誠意. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

Which is all very interesting (and confounding) given Japan's almost immediate society-wide renunciation of its wartime agression after its surrender. 

Posted by Bojack

Anonymous said...

Bojack,
If it were truly society-wide there wouldn't be a problem. There's a big difference between accepting a US-written constitution renouncing future military aggression and properly apologizing for past aggression. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

I agree with your proposals. I have also wondered, since there are only a handful of war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni, would it be so hard to unenshrine them?

I do think that regardless of what the Japanese do, and regardless of whether or not they have seii  when they apologize, the Chinese and Koreans will never stop using WWII against Japan. 

Posted by a guy in pajamas

Anonymous said...

In the southern U.S. there are people who honor leaders of the Confederacy. For most of them it's because they think these men were heroic and there is a sense of regional pride that these men were fighting for our land. This doesn't mean the people who honor these men agree with the reasons behind their actions, most would consider the same actions today to be treason rather than anything honorable.

I can see where the people visiting the shrine could also be doing so out of a sense of nationalism and admiration of heroism while ignoring the immorality motivating their actions. People don't always behave logically and are amazingly able to ignore inconvenient facts but effort should be made to keep it on a personal rather than political level...knowing your politicians find something to admire in these war criminals is vastly different from seeing them go in a group to honor them. 

Posted by marybeth

Anonymous said...

At some point the past really starts to matter less and less. At what point is WW2 unimportant and the Koreans and chineses just being big babies. I think that point has been reached a while back. maybe I do not understand the asian mind, but it happend a very long time ago. In ten years there will be barely anyone who was alive then. We bombed the Japs to hell and back, and it is time to move on and forget and forgive.
 

Posted by cube

Anonymous said...

Have you ever been to Yasakuni? It's a very solemn, impressive place, and while I was used to being the only gaijin in any given setting, I felt particularly out of place there. 

Posted by Beck

Anonymous said...

I just went today. A very interesting experience.

I will have a post about it soon. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

Just re-reading this post and comments. GB, you say: "Redefine Yasukuni Shrine (or, perhaps, dedicate a new shrine) as a memorial to all Japanese war dead, without giving special emphasis to military leaders or war criminals."

I wasn't aware that any special emphasis was given to the war criminals. In what way are they emphasized? I've never been to Yasukuni, so I have no idea what it's like. I look forward to your post on it. 

Posted by a guy in pajamas

Anonymous said...

You are actually right, as I learned when I went to Yasukuni yesterday. There is no special part of the shrine itself dedicated to the war criminals.

However, their spirits were inducted into the shrine in a separate ceremony some years after the war, which may have given the impression that these men were being accorded a distinctive honor.

Also, there is a war museum practically next door to the shrine that goes into great detail about Japan's military history, including the actions of men like Tojo, from (as might be expected) a very sympathetic perspective. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

It's been about 10 years since I went, but my experience was a lot like Beck's--I felt like I was trespassing somewhere I didn't belong. That is, until I got to the above-mentioned war museum, where I was descended upon by elderly war veterans eager to explain their (revisionist) view of history to a gaijin.
The problem with politicians like Koizumi visiting Yasukuni isn't that the war criminals are emphasized, but that in their public statements about their visits they refuse to even acknowledge that they are aware of why people think there's a problem. If they would even use some minor CYA phrase like "Of course I don't condone what the war criminals did, but ..." there would be less of an uproar, but pandering to the right wingers is too important for them to do so.

Cube, I generally agree that there should be some sort of statute of limitations for past grievances after which one can say "hey, that was a long time ago." But the process of forgiving and forgetting can't even begin until the transgressors actually acknowledge their crimes and ask for forgiveness. 

Posted by Big Ben

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