By Frank Ching
Journalist, Commentator in Hong Kong
Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid respects at Chidorigafuchi cemetery _ the country’s tomb of the unknown soldiers _ a secular memorial unlike the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
The cemetery, established in 1959, holds the remains of more than 350,000 Japanese victims of World War II, including the remains of 973 unknown soldiers which were recovered in foreign countries, including Russia and the Philippines.
Mr. Abe has consciously stayed away from the Yasukuni Shrine, knowing that his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was ostracized by China and South Korea because of his regular visits there. However, Mr. Abe did send an offering of a ``sakaki’’ plant to the shrine in late April, after which the Chinese Foreign Ministry pointedly reminded him that ``the Yasukuni Shrine issue is an important and sensitive political issue in China-Japan relations.’’
A recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo shows why it is such a sensitive political issue. Unlike churches where people can pray for peace or for the souls of the departed, Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine where the souls of 2.5 million people who died fighting Japan’s various military causes are worshipped as divinities or deities.
They include more than 1,000 people who were convicted in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal hearings in the late 1940s and were classified as Class A, B or C war criminals. However, a brochure given out at the shrine states: ``We refer to these divinities as the `Showa Martyrs.’’’ So, far from being condemned as war criminals, these people are honored as martyrs.
In fact, the shrine’s position on the rights and wrongs of all Japan’s military excursions are quite clear. Japan’s wars of aggression are described in a brochure as actions necessary for ``preserving Japan’s history and traditions.’’
The series of wars fought as a result of an increasingly militaristic Japan are justified in these words: ``Unfortunately, Japan was forced to defend its independence and maintain peace in Asia by engaging in warfare with other nations on several occasions. During the Meiji era, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars were fought.’’
The first Sino-Japanese war, fought in 1894, resulted in Japan’s acquisition of Taiwan. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, fought on Chinese soil, marked the first time that an Asian nation defeated a European one. As a result, Japan replaced Russia as the dominant foreign power in south Manchuria, in northeastern China.
Other wars followed in rapid succession, including the Manchurian Incident of 1931, when Japan provoked a conflict that was used as a pretext for the annexation of Manchuria and the setting up of a puppet state there. Then came the Greater East Asian War (known to the rest of the world as World War II), during which Japan occupied much of China and invaded many of the countries of Southeast Asia and attacked Pearl Harbor in the United States.
``These wars were indeed horrific,’’ the brochure goes on, ``but they had to be fought to ensure Japan’s independence, and its prosperity as a peaceful member of the Asian community. The hundreds of thousands of people who gave their lives for these great goals are enshrined at Yasukuni Jinja [Shrine] as divinities.’’
``The divinities enshrined went to battle and made the ultimate sacrifice _ their lives,’’ it says. ``We owe the peace and prosperity we enjoy today to the divinities of Yasukuni Shrine.’’
At the shrine itself, visitors bow and place their hands together in worship. What is more revealing of the shrine’s spirit is the nearby museum, known as Yushukan, Japan’s oldest museum, founded in 1882. A carrier-borne Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane is on display in the lobby.
Also on display is an engine associated with the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway by thousands of prisoners of war _ from the United States as well as Asia _ who were forced to work as slave laborers.
The museum depicts Japan as a victim of foreign pressure, and its wars as having been fought for national self-preservation, thus legitimizing the country’s militarism and foreign conquests.
In the bookstore, only a small handful of books were in English. Most of these were on the martial arts. The only relevant book was one called ``The Nanking Massacre: Fact Versus Fiction,’’ by Shudo Higashinakano, a right-wing historian who questions whether there was, indeed, a massacre in 1937.
Although Yasukuni is privately run, government officials and the shrine management have agreed since at least the 1960s that war criminals were to be honored and worshipped at the shrine, although this was not immediately made public.