Yesterday, Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese Prime Minister in seven years to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined. Seven of those 14 were hanged for their crimes in 1948. So, the visits of Japanese politicians cause neighboring countries no small distress. The rightists in Japan argue that the shrine is for all of Japan’s war dead, most of whom committed no crimes at all. There is an easy solution, but it will require Japan to be more honest about the imperial phase in its history.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) in Tokyo was the Pacific theatre’s answer to the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership. In 1948, the IMTFE found 25 men guilty of war crimes, and sentenced seven to death: Hideki Tojo, Heitaro Kimura, Seishiro Itagaki, Kenji Doihara, Iwane Matsui, Akira Mutou, amd Koki Hirota. Their crimes easily match those of Goering, Himmler, and Goebbels. That they have anything other than an unmarked grave is an abomination. And that, of course, is the solution — removing all attachment of the war criminals to the shrine.
For the Japanese right, however, that is not something to be considered. Unlike German officialdom, the Japanese ruling class has never fessed up to what the imperial troops did. Whereas Germany has worn ashes and sack cloth for almost 70 years (damned few of today’s Germans were even alive when the Nazis incinerated Europe), Japan has avoided mentioning the past unpleasantness. And some plain deny anything foul occurred.
One odious faux academic named Nobukatsu Fujioka has said of the Rape of Nanking, “It was a battlefield so people were killed but there was no systematic massacre or rape. The Chinese government hired actors and actresses, pretending to be the victims when they invited some Japanese journalists to write about them. All of the photographs that China uses as evidence of the massacre are fabricated because the same picture of decapitated heads, for example, has emerged as a photograph from the civil war between Kuomintang and Communist parties.” At least, Germany has the decency to be ashamed of Holocaust deniers. Nobukatsu Fujioka is professor of education at Tokyo University.
Of course, Japan’s neighbors don’t have perfectly clean hands either. The South Korean military dictatorship that was in place until the 1980s was no respecter of human rights. Russia as the Soviet Union and North Korea have worse records. China, under Mao, murdered far more Chinese than Tojo’s boys ever did. But all of that is beside the point. Al Capone didn’t deserve a pass just because the government had nothing on Meyer Lansky.
What the Japanese right needs to realize is that not all of Japanese history (or anyone else’s history for that matter) is non-stop glory. Admitting evil acts perpetrated by one’s government is not easy nor is it fun. White Americans are rarely taught in school about things like the Sand Creek Massacre, the Trail of Tears or the interment of Japanese-Americans. Slavery is too big a horror to deny, but there are those who try to sugar-coat it to this day, who say it wasn’t really all that bad.
Japan prides itself on its pacifist constitution and the knowledge that it will never again engage its troops in combat (a nice myth, anyway). Yet, were a Japanese government to formally withdraw all support and honor from the war criminals at the shrine, its neighbors might just be a little easier to deal with on matters that have yet to pass into history.