Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent homage at the Yasukuni war shrine deeply disturbed people in China and much of Asia. The dispute surrounding his actions is about more than symbolism; it goes to the heart of his intentions for Japan’s future and his willingness to build an atmosphere of trust, respect and equality in East Asia.
Fourteen Class A war criminals who were tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after World War II are honored at Yasukuni. These include former prime minister Hideki Tojo, who launched the attack on Pearl Harbor and started the war in the Pacific that cost millions of lives, and commanders of the Nanking massacre in China in which some 300,000 people were killed. But this is just part of the story.
The recent homage cannot be separated from the prime minister’s denial of Japan’s wartime atrocities, and it colors his initiative to revise Japan’s constitution to transform its Self-Defense Forces into a military force capable of projecting power outside Japan. This aggressive posture imperils regional security and economic prosperity. By contrast, Japan’s acceptance of and repentance for its war crimes would build a foundation for peace and security in the world’s most economically dynamic region.
The Yasukuni war shrine is ground zero for the unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime aggression. Established in the 19th century to honor Japan’s war dead, the shrine imparted a spiritual dimension to Japanese militarism and colonial rule during World War II and became a revered living symbol of that militarism. The shrine includes a war museum, Yushukan, whose deliberately revisionist narrative of World War II lauds “Japan’s salvage of Asian countries from the colonial rule of Western countries” and details “crimes committed by the United States.”
The Japanese government’s attitude toward this shrine is a test of its ability to understand and confront its legacy of militarism and war crimes. Because Abe is prime minister, his homage has implications inside and outside Japan. It is by no means the act of a private individual.
As China’s ambassador to Japan from 2007 to 2009, I witnessed many of the ups and downs of Japan’s relations with its neighbors. I also saw how the homage at Yasukuni by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi created tensions with China. Abe was the chief cabinet secretary in the Koizumi administration, and at one time he appeared to understand the consequences of such visits. He refrained from visiting the shrine during his first term as prime minister, which opened the door to improving Japan’s historically strained relations with its neighbors. Unfortunately, he now says he extremely regrets that decision, and his recent actions have closed the door to dialogue.
My country’s government believes that Abe’s actions since returning to power undermine his stated aim to increase Japan’s engagement in safeguarding world peace. His government’s efforts to accelerate Japan’s military buildup and his initiative to rewrite Japan’s largely U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution are disconcerting, particularly in the context of his assertions, when talking about World War II, that the term “aggression” has yet to be defined and that no evidence exists proving that “comfort women” were forced into sexual servitude during the war.
The prime minister has said that his changes to Japan’s constitutional military posture would only make Japan a “normal country.” Is he suggesting that the peaceful path Japan has followed is not normal? We see the homage at Yasukuni as nothing less than a challenge — not only to us but to the world. Japanese militarism brought great suffering to the Chinese people as well as the people of many other countries, including the United States, which was forced to fight a grueling island-by-island campaign against an intractable and fanatical enemy.
Of course, the Japanese people were also victims of Japanese militarism, and today’s generation is not responsible for the crimes of the war criminals memorialized in Yasukuni. But the prime minister and his supporters implicitly embrace that responsibility for themselves and their fellow countrymen by paying homage at the shrine.
Japan can embrace a constructive and cooperative future for East Asia by discarding militarism. Ensuring the continued peace and prosperity of our part of the world is in the best interest of all people and countries in this region. Abe is threatening the hard work we have all done to make East Asia the growth engine of the global economy. By listening to their neighbors and abandoning confrontational rhetoric, Japanese leaders can join with China, the United States, the Republic of Korea and other countries to continue to build prosperity and stability for all of Asia. The alternative is simply untenable.
Cui Tiankai is China’s ambassador to the United States. He was China’s ambassador to Japan from 2007 to 2009.