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Opinion

Japan's tribute to war criminals threatens regional ties

Every Aug. 15, Japan's politicians pay tribute to its war dead (including convicted war criminals) at the Yasukuni Shrine. These visits ignite painful East Asian memories of Japanese aggression, support revisionist history, and erode prospects for regional cooperation. They should be avoided.

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In addition to promoting much-needed economic rapport, distance from the shrine would also aid Mr. Abe’s government in countering any Chinese efforts to cite Japan’s historical misdeeds to sway international opinion on ongoing territorial disputes. The two nations are currently locked in a dispute over claims to several islands in the East China Sea.

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By taking even gradual steps to assess its history more honestly, Japan would remove Chinese leverage while simultaneously increasing its own. The world has not forgotten that China itself has no shortage of problems reconciling with history, and the more squarely Japan can face its past, the less ammunition remains in China’s grasp.

More broadly, quarantining Yasukuni from politics would improve general cooperation and negotiation with Japan’s neighbors. China and South Korea both nurse old wounds that show no signs of healing, and Yasukuni provides the salt. Historical grievances among these countries run too deep for any quick solution, but the discontinuation of shrine visits by high-ranking Japanese politicians can certainly avoid further inflammation.

Particularly in this tense time for East Asia, the need to remove diplomatic roadblocks is pressing. Even (or especially) if, as many claim, Beijing’s continued complaints are largely summoned as a political tool to stoke domestic nationalism and vilify Japan, Tokyo stands to benefit from chipping away at widely held perceptions of Japanese denialism.

Japan’s desire to become a more significant and respected player on the global stage continues to be bridled by its ministers’ allegiance to an outdated monument. To meet its policy goals and promote its national interests, Japan cannot afford to discard international credibility, and by pursuing nationalism at home, conservatives have only made it harder to pursue objectives abroad.

Whether claiming a right to maritime turf, considering a revision to its constitutional nonaggression clause, or exploring the possibility of a seat on the United Nations Security Council, Japan will want the support of its neighbors. Healthy bilateral relationships with China and South Korea will only become increasingly important for Japanese growth, trade, and cultural exchange. Bitterly negative perceptions of Japan held by other East Asian countries, despite large amounts of economic aid from Tokyo, continue to signal a foreign policy failure.

The shrine has been harmfully associated with the Japanese government for too long already, and each visit by a politician gives new embodiment to that link. It is true that Japanese have a right to mourn their dead, even those deemed war criminals, but for a few prominent statesmen to refrain from visits while in office is a minor expense considering the costs imposed on the nation by each visit. Dwelling on the past is compromising Japan’s future, and it is time its leaders saw this. 

Lulu Cheng is a graduate of Yale University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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