The Imperative Need for Reconciliation and Peace between Seoul and Tokyo
While wandering the streets of Tokyo, I made a trip to the Yasukuni Shrine, the exceedingly controversial monument where hundreds of Japanese politicians to include the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and millions of ordinary Japanese alike often visit to pay respect to Japan’s war dead, including its 14 convicted “Class-A” war criminals. Unlike global phenomenon Justin Bieber, I didn’t sojourn by the war shrine because I thought it was beautiful, but as both an Army foreign area officer and a student of East Asian affairs, I wanted to understand the notion behind Prime Minister Abe’s and many other Japanese politicians’ debated visit to the shrine.
Despite the foreseeable firestorm of criticism and condemnation from its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, Japanese policymakers continue to visit the monument in order to pray for the souls of the war dead. So if the shrine is publicized as so contentious to Beijing and Seoul why do Tokyo’s politicians continue to deteriorate the issue and pay homage at the shrine? It is simple, because they have to. China and South Korea might see Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan’s military aggression, but visiting the shrine is part of Japan’s Shinto belief. This native religion of Japan reverts back to 500 B.C., and unlike Christianity and Muslim, Shinto has no standard of written scriptures such as the Bible or the Quran. The religion is polytheistic based on worshipping almost any natural objects, to include dead personages. According to the official website of the Yasukuni Shrine, “Japanese people believe that their respect to and awe of the deceased is best expressed by treating the dead in the same manner as they were alive.” Therefore, soldiers enshrined at Yasukuni may represent the adoration of icons prescribed by the Shinto belief, where the gods are deemed to reside.
The Yasukuni Shrine was founded by Emperor Meiji to commemorate warriors who had died while serving Imperial Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912). It contains approximately 2.5 million names, but as aforementioned among them are 14 who were found guilty of war crimes during World War II. Though the site remains sensitive to Xi Jinping and Park Geun-Hye, who view it as a symbol of Japan's imperial military past, the visit continues to be popular at home. Prime Minister Abe currently enjoys an approval rating of over 56 percent and in January 2014, his cabinet retained a solid 55 percent even after the controversial visit.
Despite the aforesaid, Park’s administration continues to issue statements that the actions of Japanese policymakers contradict official apologies by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Although these actions may seem confrontational, in reality, Japanese legislators do not sympathize war aggression. Behind the national religion Shinto, it is their duty to represent the dominant sentiment in Japan. If Park can attempt to understand the value of Shintoism to the Japanese people, she may see that visiting the shrine clearly lacks any political approach. Why would anyone negate any positive momentum gained throughout the years by official efforts? Park’s demands unpretentiously demonstrate a reluctance to concede Tokyo’s efforts by detestation bred by her father, Park Geun-Hye and pungent support from the South Korean populace.
Likewise, Japan is not so innocent in this matter either. While visiting and paying respect for the dead at the Yasukuni shrine may be allowed, Abe must order the contents of nearby Yūshūkan, the war-history museum that presents provocative Japan Empire as victims of 20th century, events to be replaced. I was shocked how this autocratic-like militaristic museum was not the center of debate because first, it portrays of Japan being “forced” into World War II by the United States. Second, this mendacious museum glorifies their wartime deeds by pompously displaying memorabilia and technology of past conflicts, especially from World War II. Third, the storyline of the museum postulates how the Japan empire liberated Asia from the Western colonialism. Last and most importantly, there is no statement at all of the atrocities committed in China and Korea by the warmongering Japanese forces.
If I recall correctly, it also mentions how Japan’s advancement to China brought stability and development to Manchuria and Nanjing. Moreover, it cites how Chinese citizens welcomed arriving Japanese forces with open arms. The museum’s willingness to simply change or omit historical events shows how Japan is tactfully trying to conceal its aggressive past when the land of the rising sun’s ultranationalism drove it onto a path of dreadful invasions and war against its neighbors. Simply put, Abe must accept the fallacies of the museum and correct the narrative in order for this propitiating approach between South Korea and Japan to work.
Notwithstanding, Japanese policymakers are not provoking Seoul when paying homage at Yasukuni, instead, it is simply following the tradition of its nation. Though it might cause backlash, Park cannot afford to be caught up in the Yasukuni because she is fighting a lost cause. As an ally of the United States, South Korea is also responsible for helping ensure America’s strategic rebalance or pivot to Asia to the region and Park’s behavior is conceivably widening the gap between Tokyo and Seoul. Losing either one of these longstanding allies – Japan and South Korea – would be devastating to the United States. That said, Park should be finding ways to cooperate, perhaps taking a conciliatory approach, in order to achieve rapprochement between her and Abe.
Despite condemnation from China, disapproval from South Korea, and disappointment from the U.S., premiers of Japan of present and future will most likely continue to pay respect and visit the war shrine. South Korea must see past the provocation and understand that there is no shrewd political scheme behind these visits. Instead, President Park should bear in mind that both she and Prime Minister Abe face serious shared national security threats in the region. Seoul and Tokyo should make the management of Beijing’s military rise a fundamental component of the potential alliance. The modernization of China’s military should be a daily concern for defense officials inside both borders. In short, Park should concede her anger and put history aside so that South Korea and Japan can present a sense of cohesion and strength in the U.S. led block challenging China’s belligerence in Asia.