03 July 2004
Curiosity drew me to the Yasukuni shrine during a recent trip to Tokyo. When I lived in Beijing in the Nineties, I had been struck by the close attention paid by the Chinese authorities to every visit by a Japanese minister to this Shinto place of worship. The increasing frequency of these visits was viewed with deep concern in China as reflecting a revival of Japanese militarism. More recently, the regular visits of the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to Yasukuni have evoked strong reactions from the Chinese, who have made it clear that an official visit by him to China would not be possible until he mended his ways.
Situated near the imperial palace, the Yasukuni shrine combines simplicity with elegance in a typically Japanese style. At the time of my visit, some sort of ceremony was in progress, conducted by priests dressed in traditional white robes. The priests finally left in a stately procession and the ceremony drew to a close. To the casual tourist, there is no obvious reason why this simple shrine should be so steeped in controversy.
The reason becomes clear when one walks across the garden to the museum linked with the shrine. The Yasukuni shrine honours the spirits of the 2.5 million Japanese soldiers who laid down their lives for their country after 1868. This includes 14 Japanese personalities, including the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, who were convicted of "class A" war crimes by an international tribunal set up by the allied powers after World War II. The museum exhibits thousands of portraits of Japanese soldiers who fell in the wars launched by Japan to seize control of Korea and the Chinese island of Taiwan (1894-5), large parts of China (between 1931 and 1945) and, finally, most of southeast Asia (1941-45). Portraits of the "class A war criminals" figure prominently among the exhibits. One can understand why the reverence paid to these persons arouses the ire of the victims of Japanese imperialism.
On the other hand, of course, Japan was only the last addition to the list of imperialist powers in the Age of Colonialism - an age that has now mercifully been consigned to the dustbin of history. Japanese imperialism was undoubtedly reprehensible but not more so than the imperialism of other colonial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As I completed my circuit of the Yasukuni museum, I was startled to find a large portrait depicting the features of an unmistakably Bengali gentleman. Justice Radha Binod Pal was a member of the international war crimes tribunal. He is greatly respected in Japan for his dissenting judgment absolving Japanese leaders of charges of war crimes in the historical context of those times. His portrait finds a place of honour in the gallery.
One may ask why the Yasukuni shrine, a relic of a bygone age, continues to arouse such strong emotions among the Chinese and Koreans. The reason is that they view it as a symbol of Japanese militarism and are deeply suspicious of a revival of chauvinistic militarism in Japan. A notice in the Yasukuni museum unabashedly informs visitors that Japanese soldiers had sacrificed their lives in "unavoidable battles for self-defence of this country". This unreconstructed interpretation of the history of Japanese expansionism causes indignation among its former victims.
Japanese leaders have repeatedly distanced themselves from such preposterous views but their sincerity is still doubted by the Chinese and Koreans. Koizumi, for instance, has publicly expressed his "deepest regret and remorse" for Japan's past aggression against its neighbours. Despite his declarations of contrition, China and Korea are not prepared to accept Koizumi's explanation that the purpose of his regular visits to the Yasukuni shrine is only to "pray for peace". Chinese suspicions of Japan have been further fuelled by the steady growth of Japan's military capabilities. The constitution imposed on Japan by General MacArthur in 1946 debarred the country from employing the "threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes". Article 9 of the constitution required that "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential will never be maintained" by Japan. However, American strategic interests in the Far East underwent a transformation in the early Fifties on account of the communist victory in the Chinese civil war and the subsequent outbreak of the Korean War. Japan became an ally of the United States of America in the Cold War. A US-Japan mutual defence agreement was signed in 1954. Article 9 was now interpreted very flexibly and the Japanese parliament passed the Self-Defence Forces Law (1954), permitting the establishment of Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defence Forces in order to "preserve peace and independence of the nation and maintain national security".
Though Japan initially kept its defence expenditure down to a level of one per cent of its gross domestic product, the defence budget registered a sharp increase in absolute terms on account of the spectacular development of the Japanese economy. In 1987, the one per cent ceiling was breached for the first time, providing a further fillip to the expansion of the Self-Defence Forces. Japan today has a huge annual defence budget amounting to $50 billion. Backed by the technological prowess of Japanese industry, the 240,000 strong Self-Defence Forces are highly modernized. The role of these forces has undergone a step-by-step expansion. Geographical limits on their operations were effectively relaxed in 1992, when it was decided to permit units to serve abroad in UN peace- keeping operations. Thus, Japan contributed units to UN peace-keeping operations in Cambodia and Mozambique. The requirement for a UN mandate was recently dropped when Japanese units were sent to Iraq for "humanitarian assistance and reconstruction" purposes.
The evolution of the role of Japan's Self-Defence Forces reflects changes in the country's security environment. The most important of these are China's growing military strength, North Korea's new missile and nuclear capabilities and, finally, the prospect of a gradual reduction of the American military role in the Far East. In 1999, Japan and the US reached an agreement on a new set of "guidelines" for defence cooperation. These envisage a Japanese role in support of US military activities in "situations in areas surrounding Japan that have an important influence on Japan's peace and security". In other words, the Japanese Self-Defence Forces may now go into action in support of American military operations even in situations where Japan itself has not been attacked. "Self-defence" is being interpreted ever more flexibly.
Meanwhile, the demand for amending Article 9 of the constitution continues to gather strength. Increasing numbers of Japanese want their country to be treated as a "normal" country, entitled to maintain regular armed forces, like any other country. Is the growth of Japan's military power a portent of a revival of militarism or does it simply reflect a desire to play the role of a "normal" member of the international community? We must avoid the error of seeing only the past when we peer at the future. An objective assessment must be based on current realities. Japan's political culture has evolved significantly in the past fifty years.
Even more important is the vast change in regional power equations. China today is an ascendant great power and South Korea, a leading industrial country. In the new century, Japan will take its place as one of multiple powers in the Asia-Pacific region. In my view, the emergence of multiple power centres will afford the best protection against a recrudescence of aggressive chauvinism in any country of the region.
(This article appeared in The Telegraph, Kolkotta, on July 1, 2004.)
[The author is a retired ambassador and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation]
* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.