Issei Kato/Reuters
Members of the Japanese nationalist movement 'Ganbare Nippon' cheer after a march to pay tribute to the war dead – including convicted war criminals – at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15. Op-ed contributor Lulu Cheng writes: 'Japan cannot afford to discard international credibility, and by pursuing nationalism at home, conservatives have only made it harder to pursue objectives abroad.'

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.

In defiance of its name, literally translated as “Peaceful Nation,” Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine seems to provoke a fight with every mention. Notorious for embracing war criminals among its venerated spirits, Yasukuni today remains one of several historical grudges weighing on Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, primarily China and South Korea.

But unlike other issues, such as comfort women and textbook censorship, Yasukuni is identified with a particular date, Japan’s Aug. 15 World War II surrender in 1945. Every anniversary, high-level Japanese politicians visit Yasukuni to pay their respects, each time emerging to a news media firestorm that ignites painful East Asian memories of Japanese aggression and erodes the prospects of regional cooperation. These visits have long proven to be mistakes that can and should be avoided.

This year has been no different. While Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not pay tribute in person – likely to avoid further straining relations with China and South Korea – his representative made an offering at the shrine on his behalf, while two cabinet ministers attended in person. China condemned the move and other critics have again denounced the shrine and its museum for glorifying Japan’s violent days of empire and espousing a revisionist history that glosses over its war crimes.

A symbol of tradition and pride, Yasukuni is steeped in a 145-year history of honoring those who died in service of the Japanese empire. While tombs hold bodies, the shrine holds kami, roughly translated as a collective mass of spirits. Of the nearly 2.5 million souls at Yasukuni, only a small proportion causes the entire fuss: Because enshrinement requires only dying in service to the Empire of Japan, Yasukuni priests have not found reason to exclude more than 1,000 World War II honorees indicted for war crimes, including 14 convicted Class A war criminals.

Calls for their removal from enshrinement at Yasukuni have fallen on deaf ears. The Yasukuni priesthood, which has held full autonomy over the shrine since the official separation of church from state imposed in Japan’s 1947 Constitution, claims that enshrinement is irreversible.

China and South Korea in particular interpret Japan’s continued worship of war criminals as a refusal to recognize its history of aggression and are predictably infuriated at what they view as acts of official defiance against accepting accountability for past crimes. For Japanese government ministers to continue the shrine visits, whether for personal inclinations or campaign boosting, is a short-sighted disservice to their nation’s wellbeing.

First, Yasukuni visits impose concrete and often immediate political and economic costs. Visits by top Japanese cabinet officials to Yasukuni this April renewed and intensified anti-Japanese protests and industry boycotts in China, along with the cancellation of planned meetings with Korean and Chinese ministers.

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.

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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