Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's fifth visit to the Yasukuni shrine this week on a drizzly morning set off angry protests in Asia. China canceled a visit by the Japanese foreign minister, no small thing. Yasukuni holds the remains of 14 Class A war criminals hanged after World War II, and is regarded as symbol of Japan's perceived failure to atone for its killing sprees in and brutal occupation of Asia 60 years ago.
The Shinto shrine, a solemn wooded acre in downtown Tokyo, private, and filled with purple and yellow chrysanthemums, seems an unlikely focus for either Asian anger or rising Japanese nationalism. Mr. Koizumi says the shrine visits are an internal affair and no one else's business. Some of his advisers feel that if Koizumi keeps visiting, the world will get bored and forget.
Yet a prime reason why that wish may not come true is found on the grounds of the shrine, a few paces from where Koizumi dropped a coin and prayed. It is a boxy refurbished museum called the Yushukan, whose self-professed aim is to "shed a new light on modern Japanese history."
In fact, the museum appears to be regularizing an extremist narrative about Japan's 20th-century military behavior and role in Asia. No mention is made of Japanese soldiers subjugating Asia and its populations. Rather, the new history portrays Japan as both the martyr and savior of Asia, the one country willing to drive "the foreign barbarians," as one panel describes them, from the Orient.
The unapologetic nationalism, emperor worship, and military glorification offer graphic clues about why Asians remain concerned about "the lessons learned" by Japan after the war, to borrow the phrase used often in post-Nazi Germany.
This week, after Koizumi visited the shrine, thousands of Japanese paid $10 to visit Yushukan, with its 20 rooms, high-tech displays, and two theaters. They saw and heard that Japan occupied China and Korea in order to liberate and protect Asia from Russian Bolshevism and European colonialism. They were told the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was "forced" by "a plot" by President Roosevelt. Japanese-led massacres, Korean comfort women, Chinese sex slaves, or tortured POWs are not mentioned. There are only Japanese martyr heroes dying in defense of Japan.
"Ten years ago that museum contained some expressions of regret and remorse for the loss of life, both Japanese and foreign," says Richard Bitzinger of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "Back then there wasn't an effort to tell a story about the war. Now, it is revisionist. A whitewash. Major battles where many thousands lost their lives on both sides are simply called Japanese 'operations' or 'incidents.' "
In one, the "Nanjing incident," thought to have been a slaughter of as many as 100,000 civilians in 1937, the museum text suggests that only those outside the city who refused to obey were harmed. Once the Japanese Army cleared up the problem, "residents were once again able to live their lives in peace."
"Nanjing is treated as something very minor, like just a few instances, sort of a spring-break party for the soldiers that got a little out of hand," Mr. Bitzinger notes.
In one set of panels about the European war, Adolf Hitler was merely "trying to reclaim the territory lost in World War 1." No mention is made of other contexts, such as the murder of 6 million Jews.
The new history is being implicitly fed to a public that in Japan never got a very honest account anyway, scholars point out. Textbooks and public schools rarely describe the causes of war or Japanese behavior. Moreover, the Japan-is-innocent school is given legitimacy by the country's wildly popular prime minister when he visits the Yasukuni shrine. "It is an extreme version of history being viewed daily by the public," says a foreign diplomat. "When Koizumi goes to the shrine, it sure looks like it could be an endorsement."
At the museum book shop, students and elders walk past merchandise with titles like "The Alleged Nanjing Massacre," and $90 embossed volumes that glorify kamikazi pilots. A glassed-in lobby sports a rebuilt Japanese Zero and a replica train engine used in Burma operations that is strikingly similar to the one that fell in the river in "The Bridge On the River Kwai." There are bulletpocked 15-mm howitzers used in "the defensive war of Okinawa."
To be sure, modern Japan is so cosmopolitan and diverse, and the general tenor of its political culture so mild that few experts see anything like a full-blown resurgent nationalist Japan on the horizon. But the rise of China has worried many Japanese. "Left alone in a domestic context, Japanese don't buy this kind of ideology," notes Professor Yoshihide Soeya of Keio University. "But it comes up due to the concern about China. Sadly, many Chinese believe the Yasukuni shrine thinking represents the majority of Japanese. It does not."
Still, Japan is at a transitional moment, when the old regime forged in the 1950s is dead but no new clear direction has emerged in a defining way.
The museum, which dates to the mid-19th century, was set up to promote what became a powerful notion in the Meiji era (1868-1912) - that the emperor and the Japanese people were one. "One hundred million [Japanese] hearts beat as one," the saying went. That concept was seen as crucial to the intensity and the blind obedience of the military. After the war, emperor worship was forbidden by US occupiers. A recognition of the collective psychosis it engendered has been regarded as a lesson of the war. Yet extremism has persisted: the remains of the 14 Class A war criminals at Yasukuni were put there only in the 1970s, and only secretly.
But on the Yasukuni property, the concept of the emperor as the spiritual leader is quite strong. One poem on display reads: "We shall die in the sea/We shall die in the mountain/In whatever way/We shall die beside the emperor/ Never turning back...."
The thesis of a martyred and misunderstood Japan dates to the end of the war. In 1964 it was articulated by Hayashi Fusao in his "In Affirmation of the Great East Asian War." By the early 1990s, when some texts began showing up with this theory, it was still considered slightly nutty. Now it is appearing in a polished format in the same venue as the prime minister's visits, described as "private."
"In this version of history, Japan has done nothing wrong," says the foreign diplomat. "That is quite a burden to bear."
In a small theater near an exhibit marked "Spirit of the Samurai," a grainy black-and-white film purports to show how the US went to war with Japan. In it, the US "forced" Japan to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The film shows familiar shots of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and newsreels of Secretary of State Cordell Hull visiting the White House in a top hat, and meeting with Japanese ambassadors.
What is not familiar is the story line. In a version that most historians would refute, Mr. Roosevelt drew Japan into a conflict hoping, in part, this would end the Great Depression: "The only option open to Roosevelt ... was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war.... The US economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered."
When Secretary Hull asked Japan to remove its troops from China in the spring of 1941 and to stop the planned invasion of Southeast Asia, this "showed the US was hostile to Japan." As old diplomatic images scroll, a voiceover says: "We had huge interests in China and many fellow countrymen.... We could absolutely not abandon these interests."
US requests during that summer to negotiate were "a pretext for the Americans to initiate hostilities toward Japan."
The timeline speeds up: On July 25, Japanese "advances" into French Indochina give the US "the excuse it needs to adopt hard-line policies against Japan." On Aug. 1, "The US resolves to go to war against Japan." The Aug. 10-14 mid-Atlantic meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill results in a secret agreement to carry out the attack on Japan. On Nov. 7, "The US plan to force Japan in to war is set in motion." Nov. 20: Japanese ambassadors in Washington attempt a final compromise. But by Nov. 25, Roosevelt is "exploring ways of getting Japan to attack."