On anniversary of Japan’s surrender, issue of war history remains touchy
By Chico Harlan, Washington Post, August 15, 2013
SEOUL—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday sent an aide on an errand to a tree-lined shrine in downtown Tokyo. The aide, Koichi Hagiuda, was told to deposit a tree branch at the shrine—a ritual offering from Abe. Afterward Haguida told reporters that Abe himself felt sorry he couldn’t come but had made a “general judgment” to stay away.
For Abe, the decision to keep away from Yasukuni Shrine—a religious site that honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 war criminals—marked his latest attempt to balance competing goals: playing to his conservative base while also repairing ties with Japan’s neighbors.
Because of the war criminals enshrined there, and because of an on-site museum that downplays the brutality of Japan’s Imperial Army, Yasukuni has turned into ground zero for Asia’s vexing debate about decades-old history. Leaders in China and South Korea feel that Japan hasn’t made proper amends for its invasion and brutal occupation in the run-up to World War II. Conservatives in Japan, Abe among them, tend to view that era as a high point of Japanese glory and ambition—all while questioning the army’s systematic use of front-line sex slaves.
How Abe addresses Japan’s history, analysts say, will largely define relations with China and South Korea in the upcoming years. On Thursday, the 68th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, Abe appeared to search for a narrow middle ground, trying to show personal support of the shrine without causing diplomatic damage.
Abe has spoken with admiration about Yasukuni many times, and he visited last October, two months before his election as prime minister. But a return to Yasukuni as Japan’s leader would have spurred anger not just from Seoul and Beijing, but also Washington, which is pressing Abe to help reduce regional tensions.
Still, Abe made little headway with his show of relative restraint. Two of his cabinet ministers paid their respects at the shrine, as did dozens of parliamentarians. A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman called those visits “deplorable,” adding that the shrine “glorifies the history of imperialistic invasion.” Meanwhile, China summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to protest the visits.
In Seoul, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, addressing the nation to mark its Liberation Day, said that historical issues have cast a “dark shadow” over relations with Japan. “In the absence of courage enough to face the past,” Park said, “it will be difficult to build the trust necessary for our future.”
But Park also suggested that many Japanese disagree with Abe’s historical narrative and view World War II and the period preceding it as exemplifying military ambition run amok.
One high-profile Japanese politician, Toru Hashimoto, has already paid a price for controversial comments about the past. Hashimoto, known for his nationalist views, said in May that sex slaves—euphemistically called “comfort women” and forcibly recruited by Japanese occupation troops in China, Korea, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations—were a “necessary” part of war. He was lambasted on Japanese Internet sites, and his party was summarily trounced in parliamentary elections, turning from a mid-power into an afterthought.
Abe has retained his own popularity by focusing on economic issues during his nine months in power. Some analysts fear that an emboldened Abe, on the heels of a July parliamentary victory for his ruling party, might be more willing to court controversy by talking about Japan’s past. If he does so, it could stoke further tensions between South Korea and Japan, the United States’ two closest allies in the region, while complicating Washington-brokered attempts at military coordination.
"The best that Japan and South Korea can arrange for now is a [verbal] cease-fire—no opening of these historical issues by Abe, and instead focusing on positive areas of cooperation," said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But there is no simple concluding arrangement that will make this go away."
Japan is locked into a naval cat-and-mouse game with China around a set of disputed islands. South Korea and Japan have their own territorial dispute, but it’s far less volatile. Their relationship has suffered more from verbal and symbolic moves by politicians.
Both Abe and Park, who took office in February, are hemmed in by domestic skepticism. Polls suggest surging distrust between Japanese and South Koreans. Park and Abe haven’t yet held a summit, nor shown interest in doing so, breaking a tradition of meetings between Japanese and South Korean leaders soon after taking office. Park has proposed multilateral dialogue for peace in Northeast Asia, while also taking swipes at Japan, calling it “blind to the past.”