Japan's Dangerous World War II Attitude

Japan's World War II revisionism is distracting from urgent economic reforms.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Friday, April 19, 2013. Abe said reviving Japan's growth will depend on further opening the economy and tapping the underutilized potential of its women and advanced technology. Abe outlined the next steps of his grand plan for restoring Japan's economic power Friday, describing a slew of initiatives he said would help awaken Japan's "sleeping dynamism."

Will Japan's economic recovery get tarred by ugly nationalism? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently conducting a bold and ambitious program of economic reform with inflation targeting, short-term fiscal stimulus and long-term structural reforms. The rest of the world is watching closely to see if Japan's bold but risky strategies are successful.

So it does not help the nation's standing when Japanese politicians make revisionist comments about Japan's actions during World War II, and deny the aggressive actions of the war-era government.

Japan has had a difficult time reckoning with the crimes it committed during World War II. Historians have suggested numerous reasons for this: some argue that Cold War-era politics meant there was less pressure from America to get Japan to face up to its ugly past. Others argue that since Shintoism (the dominant Japanese faith) eschews making moral judgements of the dead, it is harder for the Japanese to condemn their ancestors.

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Regardless of the reasons, the end result has been the creation of a blind spot in how some Japanese - particularly conservative politicians - view the past. 

Japanese conduct during World War II becomes a news story whenever a politician visit the infamous Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine was established in 1869 and honors the souls of Japanese who have died defending the nation. The Shinto faith holds  that all souls become divine upon death. Yasukuni Shrine's website declares

[M]ore than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined here at Yasukuni Shrine. These are souls of men who made ultimate sacrifice for their nation since 1853 during national crisis such as the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident and the Greater East Asian War (World War II). These people, regardless of their rank or social standing, are considered to be completely equal and worshipped as venerable divinities of Yasukuni.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The practical consequence of honoring all souls is that the shrine also honors Japanese who were found guilty of war crimes in the tribunals that took place after the war. Adding insult to injury, the shrine is also adjacent to a Japanese war museum that has been criticized for its revisionist take on Japan's war conduct and for its gift shop that sells revisionist literature.

Unfortunately, it seems that visiting the shrine has become something of a right of passage for Japanese politicians. Abe visited the shrine on April 21 and two days later a record 168 members of the Japanese Diet also visited. 

Abe made matters worse when later he commented that "the definition of what constitutes an 'invasion' has yet to be established in academia or in the international community." This was his response when asked whether he supported the official apology issued by Japan in 1995 for its war-time aggression.

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In early May, Japan's foreign minister stated that the nation had no intention of reversing any of the apologies it had issued. But despite this reprieve, it has not taken long for a new set of controversial comments to be made.

On a televised policy debate on May 12, the Liberal Democratic Party's own policy chief argued that the prime minister did not agree with the findings of the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal, forcing Japan's top spokesman to issue another round of pushback arguing that this was not the government's official view. On May 13, the Mayor of Osaka (who is a member of a different party than the prime minister) made equally troubling comments, simultaneously saying that Japan must accept the view that its conduct during the war was aggression, while still supporting Abe's earlier statements that aggression has to yet to be academically defined.

It is an unfortunate truth that when discussing Japan's war time conduct, there will be far too many Japanese politicians who make equivocal statements like this instead of rightly condemning the war-time government's actions in clear terms. While statements like this don't make Abe's economic reforms any less valid or needed, they do cast an ugly shadow on a government that is engaged in the boldest effort in recent years to revitalize Japan's economy.