Gary J. Bass: A Shrine to Japan’s Tainted Past

Roundup: Talking About History

[Gary J. Bass, an associate professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, is the author of "Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals."]

IF Dec. 7 is the date that Americans remember for the infamy of Pearl Harbor, then Aug. 15 is the wrenching coda remembered by Japanese: the date on which, in 1945, Japan agreed to surrender in World War II. Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, however, Aug. 15 has been marked not just by dignified commemoration, but by repeated international brawls over his annual visits to the tainted Yasukuni war shrine.

Yasukuni is a beautiful, private Shinto monument in Tokyo to Japan’s 2.5 million war dead. It also glorifies more than a thousand Japanese war criminals, most notoriously a dozen top leaders convicted as Class A war criminals by the Allied war crimes tribunal at Tokyo, including Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister.

A rallying point for revisionists, the shrine includes a newly renovated museum that showcases a fiercely nationalist version of Japanese military history — one that glosses over Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and skates past its brutal slaughter in Nanjing without mentioning the massacre of Chinese civilians. Small wonder that Japan’s neighbors react with revulsion and fury when Mr. Koizumi visits the shrine.

This year, Mr. Koizumi, who is leaving office in September, has one last chance to serve his country. He should make a point of skipping a final visit to Yasukuni and push instead for a new national memorial to Japan’s war dead, or for the removal of Class A war criminals from the shrine’s rolls.

Doing so would remove a key piece of ammunition from the arsenal of Japan’s rivals. Chinese hard-liners use the Nanjing massacre to distract their public away from present-day communist corruption and misrule. In April 2005, there were alarming anti-Japanese protests in China, sometimes involving vandalism — presumably with at least the quiet approval of China’s authoritarian rulers. In March, China’s president, Hu Jintao, announced that he would meet with Mr. Koizumi only if he decided to stop visiting Yasukuni. ...

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